‘Rock‘n’roll’s evil doll’: the Female Popular Music Genre of Barbie Rock – Rock Chugg

Abstract: Fostering male tradition in popular music, rock’n’roll history often underrated the early Girl Group chart-topping era of 1958-63 after Elvis and before Beatlemania. By the 1990s-2000s, Riot Grrrl and Girl Power success was again devalued by that homosocial music scene. Beset by neoliberal managerialism, even academic and market research played it safe, recognising corporatist Indie and nationalist Brit-Pop, while Riot Grrrl revolt into Girl Power style components of a new female genre went unrecognised. Consecutive social exclusion (Riot Grrrl) and social capital (Girl Power) factors in the sound, dubbed Barbie Rock from stereotyped songs, like global hit ‘Barbie Girl’ (1997-8) were intensified by the shifting role of primary and secondary definers in digital media. For popular music, such shifts included 1) rock-press computerisation; 2) moral panic news; and 3) video monopoly. Illustrated with quotes from Barbie Rock fanzine Polymer, the paper culminates in an in-between Riot Grrrl and Girl Power case study of Barbie Rock front-woman, Caroline Finch. The high profile of female pop music today (‘rock’n’roll’s’), although demonised (‘evil’), confirms the ongoing influence of this 1990s genre on a now digitalised era of the plasticised body (‘doll’).

        

Barbie, Barbie, still in her teens
Bell of the parties, a tom boy in jeans

                                      ‘Barbie’ – The Beach Boys, 1962

Figure 1: Polymer News 

Figure 1: Polymer News

Introduction: ‘rock’n’roll’s evil doll’[1]

Apparently nothing new happened in 1990s music. ‘I shall not be discussing new genres’ says genre expert Negus, ‘this would require the lucky researcher to be in the right time and place to chart their emergence’ (1999: 29). If we take the risk society seriously, that ‘time and place’ has disappeared into the virtual reality of an information age. Even postmodern criticism is unsure of the extent to which contemporary ‘art’ is ‘mediocrity squared. It claims to be bad – “I am bad! I am bad!” – and it truly is bad.’ (Lotringer, 2005). The prevailing view finds entire cultural scenes, let alone popular music, in lockstep vicious recycle mode. Yet a revolution turned counter-revolution, keen to dismiss new female music as dissipated ‘victim-babes’ (Greer, 1999) or incongruous as ‘a camel on a bicycle’ (Raphael, 1995), is met with ‘Riot Grrrl’ resistance (Riley, 1994) and ‘Spice Girl’[2] dissent (Lumby, 1998). While self-exclusion glossed by token inclusion maybe the virtual failure of ‘Barbie Rock’ (see part 4 below), what men don’t know and Grrrl Power understands is that for rock‘n’roll this is also its actual success.

My illustrative data for the Barbie Rock genre was captured in opened-ended research from primary sources. Tanner endorses musical genres as ‘better addressed with more qualitative research’ (2008: 189). In this case over fifty musicians, writers and experts were interviewed in Polymer magazine between 1997 and 2002. Semi-structured and tailored questions, snowballed from celebrity participants, drew diverse reactions to the sexed genre, ranging from fanatical gusto to detached cool. Attentive to notoriety, it was considered true to their initial fanzine sample to ‘spell out’ the names of participants, with reference to Bourdieu’s precedent (1988: 278). Artefact of intense independent and mainstream media activism (fanzine to glossy magazine), Barbie Rock integrated original low fi ‘potty mouthed’ Brat Mobile Riot Grrrls with high tech ‘wanna be’ Spice Girls Power. Théberge corroborates magazines, ‘as a central element in the “framing” of popular musical forms’ (1991a: 271).

Formulated in a context of hung-parliament cartels, the notion of ‘social exclusion’ unites Blair’s New Labour to Giddens’ Third Way, linking a potential for improved poverty studies with criteria like ‘non-participation’. In practice, contradictory accounts noted the social wage benefiting low-income groups while high-income group levels fell (Bradshaw, 2004: 173). Or alternately, loss of the public realm, social individual and democracy based collective provision (Hall, 2005: 328). Predictably, events like increased economic polarisation and exclusion,[3] uncorrected by token multicultural inclusion or mutual obligation, largely confirm the latter view. Less a non-participatory than anti-intellectual check on popular culture, utopian neoliberal policy moved business cycles away from subversions dear to rock-press turned academics (Reynolds, 1988), now co-opted in education rehab. Stale formats from industry models of 1980s ‘Indie’ underculture (Hesmondhalgh, 1999: 35) consoled post-genre quietism accompanied by neutralising trivia, like the TV ‘rock quiz’. Against these general factors of resistance to new genre subcultures Hesmondhalgh concedes particulars, like an ‘increased policing of copyright, in ways that have favoured the oligopolistic corporations dominating cultural production, actually inhibits creativity rather than promotes it’ (2007: 88). Such life experience pressures on primary and secondary media definers, overriding female music innovation, displaced a normally creative function of both the rock-press and musician alike:

No, rock’n’roll has no future, absolutely not! – Craig N. Pearce, journalist (Quatro)[4]

Sorry, are like you suggesting that the Paradise Motel can be referred to as ‘Barbie Girl’? – Merida Sussex, Paradise Motel (Stone)

Figure 2: Polymer Stone

Figure 2: Polymer Stone

Addressing the theme of social exclusion directly, Bayton itemised ‘“constraints” facing the potential female musician’ as ‘material’ (money, equipment, transport) and ‘ideological’ (hegemonic masculinity and femininity). ‘What was interesting was the way in which women are able to overcome or evade…exclusion’ (1998: 189). Interestingly, she suggested ‘escapes’ or ‘resistances’ (role models, feminism and lesbianism) centred on theories of symbolic interactionism. Contextualising the argument further, here I suggest that the social ‘exclusion’ of significant genre experience was determined not only by the classic sexism targets of feminism, but the refractions of popular music by new technology. Explored below, these are described as institutional driven rock-press computerisation; moral panic reportage; and video monopoly. Based on ideas from Baudelaire to Bataille, such shifts are haunted by Baudrillardian ‘evil’ or demonisation of women (‘Lilith’). Whether already noted as industry/culture problems of ‘production’ (Negus, 1998), or ‘commodification’ by the male ‘producer/record company/music business’ (Stras, 2010: 3) this sexed nexus also facilitates the first female genre of popular music.

I bought her a full length Barbie silver fox,

But she just lies in her Barbie box

                     ‘Barbie’ – Shower Scene From Psycho, 1986

 

1 Rock-press computerisation: speak no evil

Founded on the ‘existence of valuable relationships’, Bradshaw argues that ‘social capital does not seem to be particularly related to poverty, possibly because the poor have more time to maintain them’ (2004: 184). Cultural industry data shows that most ‘genre’ pop artists live on low incomes in semi-poverty, buoyed by a successful ‘star system’,[5] comprised of marketing formats to counter unpredictable sales. However, the raw material of music is exchangeable form, not ‘industrial’ content or ‘consumer’ style. The expert or ‘primary definer’ (Hall et al., 1978) and management or ‘entrepreneur’ (Martinelli, 1994), value-add to these music forms recorded from studio or live performance. In official male-dominated pop decades from the 1950s for example, rock journalism (‘hacks’) in this role credibly claimed to operate outside vested economic or political interests. But since the professionalisation of writing or ‘routinisation of innovation’ (Martinelli, 1994: 480) effect of internet technicism (‘hackers’), biopower fragmentation and niche marketing have led to social exclusion and music sales decline (Mathieson, 2006). Factors perpetuating a homosocial trend of ‘exclusion of femininity from rock’ (Davies, 2001).

Both the ‘corporate strategy’ focused concept of Indie genres (Hesmondhalgh, 1999), and academic ‘theory’ of genres (Fabbri, 1980: 6) overlook the creative role of primary definers or cultural intermediaries (Negus, 1999: 18). For Hesmondhalgh, Bourdieu’s ‘cultural intermediary’ concept is ‘confusing and unhelpful’ (2007: 67). Harley and Botsman’s ‘No payola and the cocktail set’ examined this function in the heyday of a pre-internet, extra-institutional and under-theorised rock-press (1982). After three decades of rock’n’roll genres, the 1980s academic finally itemised this journalistic discourse of ‘hacks’ as downplaying the ideological and commercial outcomes of popular music writing in terms of airplay, sales and popularity (‘historicising, idolising and posing’). For these researchers, the Sex Pistols were approved on ‘tactical’ grounds, unlike romantic ‘Punk’ recycling charismatic ideology of race-music Rockabilly and vitalism Psychedelia. Punk hagiography only repeated this personality cult logic of the 1950s and 1960s. Ensuing 1980s Post-Punk parent versus subculture readings were also seen as trapped ‘within an overworked and useless construction of power’ (1982: 252). However, Harley and Botsman’s reservation about an entrepreneur rock-press is finally offset by the self-conscious reflexive method of Londoners Paul Morley and Ian Penman. In journalism similar to Australian Craig N. Pearce or American Lester Bangs, this rock-writer-as-intellectual as its vital media illusion preceded the internet techicism Diaspora.

According to sociology, ‘the weakening of the role of the innovative entrepreneur is seen as a basic factor, although not the only one, of the crisis of capitalism’ (Martinelli, 1994: 479). Conversely, cultural studies visualise the role of institutional ‘primary definer’ as ultimately vested by, ‘branches of the state and its fields of operation – through the formal separation of powers; in the communications field it is mediated by the protocols of balance, objectivity and impartiality’ (Hall et al., 1978: 220). With a variable supply of social capital, stringer to freelance rock-press journalism shuttled between these commercial entrepreneur to state primary definer roles. ‘Definition of rock journalism: People who can’t write, doing interviews with people who can’t think, in order to prepare articles for people who can’t read’ (Zappa and Occhiogrosso, 1990: 221). Recognised as its highpoint, the contrasting 1980s reflexive rock-press ushered in, ‘the progressive decay of the entrepreneurial function by virtue of the routinisation of innovation’ (Martinelli, 1994: 478-9). Although trivialised as ‘thin cultural studies’ (Beilharz, 1995: 133) and ‘the cultural turn’ (de la Fuente, 2007: 120), while it lasted, the professionalisation transition that succeeded this flashy journalism did actually deliver some valuable insights into popular music.[6]

Rather than ‘romantic Punks’ or ‘parent versus subculture’, with ‘increasing reliance on “expert” opinion’, today’s ‘professional’ tends to overlook the ‘popular consciousness’ (Abbot-Chapman, 2007: 242). Opposite of the ‘sociologism’ that claims a ‘genre community’ is ‘always…conscious of their precise role in musical reality’ (Fabbri, 1980: 6), this rock-press devaluation thwarts participants from self-defining their primary knowledge based on lived experience. Thus routinised female music goes ‘unreported in the [rock] press’ (Bayton, 1998: 78):

Barbie Rock! Very good – what’s that? – Caroline Kennedy, Dead Star (Hex)

Sure, if they want to call it Barbie Rock, then call it Barbie Rock! – Ian Meldrum, journalist (Hex)\

In the 1990s, the professionalisation or ‘bureaucratisation’ (Brett, 1991) of writing was driven by an internet technicist computerisation overseen by university research. Unlike New Zealand, Australian sociology is university centred (Germov and McGee, 2005). Bayton refers to radio Disc Jockeys as the significant rock‘n’roll gatekeeper. But the ‘hegemonic’ male journalism she identifies (1998: 3) is today fuelled by an ex-Cold War internet over-researched as computerisation. On it women are routinely devalued in ‘sexual’ terms. By arguing ‘we can no longer speak Evil’ (or a demonised female music genre), Baudrillard refers to this computerisation (2009: 97). In the above quotes from Caroline or Ian, the effect is validation doubt about a devaluated genre experience (cf. ‘degenerate’ modernist art militarily repressed until 1945 (Bradbury and McFarlane, 1976)). In Australian contemporary journalistic and scholarly studies of rock‘n’roll appearing after Riot Grrrl and Girl Power, the female genre is not acknowledged. The authors paid their dues in the 1990s street press (Mathieson, 2000), 1980s news media (Breen, 1999) and 1970s rock-press (Walker, 1996). While Mathieson joined the corporation, describing the ‘Indie’ music scene interestingly as a ‘Sell In’,[7] Breen and Walker were later to hitch their stars to the university. Contrasting this commercial or institutional cooptation, the new as yet unidentified genre would remain viable if seen ‘as a tacitly condoned mechanism of Subversion and foil to State control’ (Chugg, 1989: 64).

She’s very smart,

She can dance well,
Bang,
bang, bang,

Twist Barbie

’Twist Barbie’ – Shonen Knife, 1992

Figure 3: Polymer Inner City

Figure 3: Polymer Inner City

2 Moral panic news: hear no evil

Unlike genetic or animal research for drug based solutions of ‘social inclusion’ (Bonner, 2006: 4), while noting such ‘behaviourist ideological baggage’, Bradshaw argues cogently that ‘social inclusion is not necessarily the opposite of social exclusion – though the emphasis of the state as agent is welcome’ (2004: 184). But like privatisation creep, such interventions can cause social exclusion. For example, Hubert shows how technology is ‘creating a new category of socially excluded children’, also suggesting that ‘people who are medically cured in Western terms may not return’ from ‘social death’ (2000: 3-4). In Australia, this logic is demonstrated by a high-incidence of child abuse in the whole community on the one hand (Herald Sun, 2007); and the indigenous peoples nominated as scapegoat on the other. Clearly such ‘relegation of people to nature’ behaviourism appears a ‘way of legitimating exploitation and exclusion from civilised society’ (Hubert, 2000: 5). The initiating moral panic debuted on television (ABC, 2006) amplified by the press (Age, 2006) then military intervention (Age, 2007), eventually earned under-reported opposition from the UN. Similar disproportionate media reaction was already noted in the mid-90s as, ‘moral panic in response to rock and roll more generally’ (Grossberg, 1995: 368).

Developing the work of Cohen (1973), Hall et al. (1978: 222) frame ‘moral panics’ as a crisis of consent or ‘hegemony’, at times escalating into ‘general panic’ when, ‘all dissensual breaks in the society’ are perceived as threats to ‘law and order’. Media definers, ‘play a crucial but secondary role in reproducing the definitions of those who have privileged access, as of right, to the media as “accredited sources”’ (1978: 58). Two decades later, McRobbie and Thornton argue that subculture and genre ‘marketing strategy’ functions of moral panics are ‘priceless PR campaigns’ (1995: 565). However, unequal readerships of large circulation dailies compared to limited distribution fanzines contradict this thesis. The experience of fanzines, like Polymer, Thunderpussy, or Riot Grrrl is a case in point. Each gained only a small circulation despite huge music chart sales. Yet by including such demonised minority ‘folk devils’, moral panics present a smallest number utilitarian calculus tailored to the ‘biopower’ set theory of primary definers (Foucault, 1981). These xenophobic primary definitions of sex, race, class or age bring ‘life and its mechanisms into the realm of explicit calculations’, submitting ‘life integrated into the techniques that govern and administer it’ (1981: 143). McRobbie later refits this ‘biopolitical strategy’ set theory (2007: 730) for post-feminist ‘Top Girls’ to deconstruct revived sexism in Blair’s New Britain. Conversely, ‘Barbie Rock’ is a way of subverting stigmatising stereotypes, like ‘virgin, mother, and prostitute’ (Stras, 2010: 4):

That’s why heavy metal’s become so popular, because it’s tribal. Female rock stars they come and they go, but they never seem to leave a mark – Dr Pepper, journalist (Stone)

I actually agree with you. I think that there is more interesting, the most interesting bands at the moment are either female led or have got girls in them – Justine Frischman, Elastica/Suede (Hex)

The measure of women’s significant success in rock‘n’roll, a female genre was already anticipated as far back as the 1980s. Saxophonist Louise Brooks of critically acclaimed group The Laughing Clowns believed, ‘barring incredible turns to the right, that is a trend that will continue. Quite possibly, women conceptualise differently, but if so, it’s quite invisible’ (Shien, 1987: 84). Yet key events, like a ‘Women in Rock’ issue of Rolling Stone (1997) gave the nod (if seen as ‘pitifully small’ after Destiny’s Child and The Spice Girls’ triumph – Stras, 2010: 5) while dodging the genre. In the bigger picture, a ‘social inclusion’ military Intervention on demonised aboriginals (lower socio-economic class ‘social death’ by a discredited ‘race’ scientism) confirm ‘incredible turns to the right’ fears. Unjustly blamed for the larger ‘white’ society in denial. Similarly, media sexism that reduces women musicians, for example to ‘glamour shots’ (Bayton, 1998: 14) deactivates their female popular music genre. The quoted biopolitical doubts of David, Justine and Louise are vindicated. For Baudrillard, the evil demon of media images occurs as a ‘precession’ of the real by models. These ‘invert the causal and logical order of the real and its reproduction’ (1984: 13). For instance, if not for homage to aboriginal Buried Country (Walker, 2000), 1990s Barbie Rock assimilated to 1970s Punk by Australia’s ‘pre-eminent critic and historian’ with inaccuracies like ‘1991: The Year Punk Broke’ (Walker, 1996: 280) may also have telescoped his oeuvre into demonisation.

I’m a Barbie girl in the Barbie world,

Life in plastic it’s fantastic

‘Barbie Girl’ – Aqua, 1997

Figure 4: Polymer Thing

Figure 4: Polymer Thing

3 Video monopoly: see no evil

According to the social theory of Daly and Silver (2008), social capital and social exclusion can be at once opposites (rather than inclusion) and interchangeable; one the antidote (to the other) and both merged into a continuum. Ultimately, ‘social capital may actually increase social exclusion’ (2008: 556). Resisting assimilation, they also retain the distinction between cultural studies (social capital) and sociology (social exclusion). In social practice, Bourdieu’s example of a relational ‘hiatus’ between the ‘statutory expectations’ of déclassé academics with devalued social capital and lack of ‘opportunity’ leading to social exclusion, explains the student unrest of ‘May 1968’ (1988: 163). Baudrillard’s cultural example is the ‘virtual’ music ‘restored to technical perfection’ by excluding ‘noise and static’ that has to reinvest in some noise to restore musical capital (2007: 28). Bayton finds such ‘a relational hiatus’ in Riot Grrrl technophobia of live and studio ‘technical skills’ restored by technophile training (1998: 7). Reynolds and Press similarly describe Riot Grrrl creativity as limited to music ‘content’ that excludes ‘form’ (1995: 187). This polarisation of social exclusion and social capital coheres as the limit of lo fi Riot Grrrl technophobic content, opposed to hi tech Girl Power technophile form and interposed by a relational hiatus of Barbie Rock technical skills. Like ‘social’ media adapted to female ends, the genre of 1990s rock‘n’roll lies here.

The horizon of all popular music, in Jazz (for Riot Grrrl, Tracy Chapman’s roots music) sociologists argue that, ‘objects do not possess sociality, people do, and it is through the embodied nature of inter-subjective human social action that objects come to have contingent relevance’ (Gibson, 2006: 185). Gibson locates this relationship between normative frameworks of performance and limiting parameters of musical instruments, creatively minimised by musicians who reach sufficient degrees of technical facility for improvisation. Contrarily, for cultural studies, ‘the technical mastery of space and time contributes not only to the rationalisation of musical production, but also to the creation of a myth of community’ (Théberge, 1991: 110). Rather than inter-subjectivity, Théberge highlights both the simulation of community through increasing spatial rationalisation of audio material in separation recording, and the star-system driven and cost efficiency control of overdubbing (for Girl Power, Destiny’s Child’s dance music). In this mode, creative improvisation is reconstructed in the studio, refuting the classless ‘myths of technology’ technicism of ‘McLuhanesque’ leftists (1991). Today this digitally anatomised community, when ‘social control’ over women and ‘sexist jokes abound’ (Bayton, 1998: 6), has again been profoundly transformed by, ‘the predominance of music videos in the marketplace’ (Théberge, 1991: 109).

Banks traces the ‘incorporation’ of live and recorded popular music into a video monopolised ‘market place’ back to the arrival of privatised cable channel, MTV (1998: 293). This raised a small 23% percentile of top 100 Billboard acts with videos in 1981 to 97% by 1989 (295). Hesmondhalgh confirms the 1990s transition to a two-dimensional ‘stabilizing pop mainstream oriented towards video promotion, and synergies with visual mass media.’ Like Polymer participants, Indie labels were ‘determinedly against these commercial methods’ (1999: 38) for ‘trivialising them, and dealing with them solely in terms of their physical attractiveness’ (Bayton, 1998: 25):

It’s OK to play music if you’re a beautiful girl, and I felt like it was getting a bit too much of that image – Laura McFarlane, Sleater Kinny/Ninety Nine (Vee)

I think I’d be comfier with ‘Barbie Rock’ if it turned out that really you were talking about the strange new breed of boys that seem to have no hormones and no sperm count – Paul Morley, journalist (Hex)

Reviving 1960s Psychedelic versus 1970s Punk role-set conflict and simulating slick TV advertising, by the 1990s visual clips had replaced live tours as the means of self-promotion, modelled on performance (‘authentic’) and concept (‘synthetic’) formats now feted in annual video awards (Banks, 1998: 295). With privatisation creep prioritising money-making visuals over musical talent (303), the ‘hot’ 3D sound of radio was digitised into ‘cool’ 2D sight of TV, unreceptive to the Barbie Rock limit genres of Riot Grrrl revolt into Girl Power style. Grossberg reads the ‘hip attitude’ of TV as a ‘refusal to take anything…seriously’ (1995: 376), where the ‘explicit conjunction of images and songs seems to multiply the possibilities of interpretation’ (370)[8]. The neutral mood, affect or emotion standing apart from ideas. A neutrality Breen (1999) ascribed to the Girl Power pop of Kylie Minogue, supposedly eclipsed by Midnight Oil’s Brit-Pop style nationalism.[9] ‘Where rock was considered to rely on a set of established practices based on musicianship and a relationship to audience, pop was a disposable image of little lasting value’ (1999: 67). But if TV ‘screens out’ new genres or sexual inequality evils (Baudrillard, 2007: 78), it also facilitated free to air music in Australia. Albeit excluded in late-late night programs, like the ABC’s Rage or ‘youth’ radio JJJ biopower. At least complete ‘commercialisation’ (Hesmondhalgh, 2007: 305) failed to eventuate.

Kids don’t like me,

Moms are mad,

I’m going off the market,

‘Cause I look so sad

’Bitterness Barbie’ – Lunachicks, 1995

Figure 5: Polymer Vee

Figure 5: Polymer Vee

4 Barbie Rock and sexism: beyond good and evil

Social exclusion is a ‘multidimensional concept’ (Bonner, 2006; Hubert, 2000), that tends to ‘deflect attention from ever-increasing income inequality and class conflict’ (Daly and Silver, 2008: 554) or poor social capital. Poverty measures of ‘physical’ or ‘financial’ capital are enhanced, social exclusion theory argues, by non-participation indicators of ‘discrimination, chronic ill health, geographical location or cultural identification’ (Burchardt et al., 2002: 6). Women own one per cent of ‘physical’ titled land and are seventy per cent of the world’s ‘financial’ poor (MX, 2008)[10], making ‘cultural identification’ (in this case ‘genre’) indicators more relevant, in the context of popular music. Frith (2001: 46) and Hesmondhalgh (2007: 23) define genres as a record label method or ‘format’ for coping with risk. The ‘irrational’ behaviours of audience ‘taste’ or artistic ‘talent’ in the ‘star system’. Similarly Breen (1991: 193-4) refers to a ‘pre-existing system’ of market fact versus authenticity fiction. For Bayton (1998: 15) the ‘objectification of performers’ derives from this ‘star system’ (‘creating product loyalty’ and ‘simplifying promotion’) as ‘another record company strategy to secure profits’. Proof of powerless media in technophile times, Barbie Rock escaped notice because of such ‘cultural’, ‘irrational’, ‘pre-existing’ or ‘loyalty’ factors. Since the 1950s race-culture of Rockabilly and Doo-Wop, 1960s counterculture Psychedelia of Surf to Folk, 1970s subculture Punk fused with Reggae, and 1980s underculture Swamp joined to Hip-Hop, reconciliation of such opposites has defined rock’n’roll. By the 1990s, homieculture Riot Grrrl and Girl Power linked Barbie Rock through a series of ‘answer records’ (a ‘bizarre’ tradition for Dawson and Propes, 1992: 132), like ‘Twist Barbie’, ‘Barbie USA’, ‘Bitterness Barbie’, ‘Barbie Girl’, ‘Barbie Be Happy’ and ‘Career Barbie’.[11]

Not without precedent, the bridging phase between the fadeout of Rockabilly in 1959 and British Invasion by 1963 was important for more than Keitley’s sexist reference to a ‘lost spirit of rock‘n’roll’ (2001: 118). This was also a moment of ‘exciting and energetic “girl groups”’ (Gaar, 1992) with chart-topping songs, like The Bobbettes, The Chantels, The Chiffons, The Crystals, The Dixie Cups, The Exciters, The Ronnettes, and The Shirelles. Music primary definers tend to dismiss these ‘in-between years’ of rock‘n’roll, when popular music suffered a supposed ‘near death experience’ (Keitley, 2001: 116; Birch, 1987: 165). Devaluation of female success in ‘monetarily dry’ times hid a reality of controlled artists, withheld royalties and ‘black’ women excluded by secondary definer media (busy re-racialising a newsworthy Watts Riot). The Ed Sullivan Show, for instance showcased both a ‘white’ 1950s Elvis and 1960s Beatles. ‘Radio may have been colour blind but television was not: none of the black girl groups of the early ‘60s appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show no matter how many hits they had, whereas a minor contender like Britain’s Cliff Richard, who had only two U.S. Top 40 hits at the time, appeared three times’ (Gaar, 1992: 51). So much for confident claims that ‘rock and roll has always been on television’ (Grossberg, 1995: 371).

Viewed in this way, while Stras concedes ‘the genre’s seemingly contradictory historic importance as a fostering ground for feminine and racial equality’ (2010: 21), the Girl Groups of enlightened scholarship based on biopolitical race, class, age or sexual identities seem to reiterate an ‘evil’ problematic of mistaking effects for causes (Baudrillard, 1984: 13). Stras’ assent to agist ‘rites of passage’ from ‘girl’ to ‘woman’, for example leaves her idea of ‘adolescence’, now complicit with ‘adult’ moral panic, open to charges of propaganda for the very sexual inequality evils that she criticises. Launched during this Girl Group era and seen as the paradigm ‘of young girls’ aspirations and fantasies’, Barbie™ the doll ‘embodied a fixed ideal of emerging womanhood for the English-speaking world’ (2010: 15). This identity neutral ‘respectability’ was an unattainable norm. Stras argued that the only option open to Girl Groups was to ‘dissemble’ their nature. Pretending to do/think one thing, while actually doing/thinking another (2010: 19). Much later, a plastic era of Riot Grrrl lo fi, Girl Power hi tech or Barbie Rock technical skills emerges to decode that ‘essentialised myth of woman tied to nature’ (Toffoletti, 2007: 79).

Surpassing 1960s Girl Group success and sexist discrimination on a larger scale over a longer period, the 1990s saw another social exclusion of the new female Heavy Metal meets Girl Group emergent style. Increasingly eclipsed by new technology and over-invested ‘poor chic’ cinema, MTV-centric privatised ‘cable’ television shifted music priorities from audio to telegenic visuals. Homan (2007) and Mathieson (2000) note how less profitable radio turned to ‘standardised playlists’, while record companies kept to the research based ‘objective repertoires’ of 1980s Rap or 1970s Punk. Yet the female counter-practice, registered in both chart success and innovation, spanned Olympia’s early self-misspelt ‘Riot Grrrl’[12] to ‘Girl Power’ global hit ‘Barbie Girl’ by Denmark’s Aqua. A ‘homie’ (cf. Hip Hop curfew neologism, ‘homegirl’) glocalised genre cross-section would include the popular success of Aqua, Breeders, Cardigans, Cub, Destiny’s Child, Donnas, Echobelly, Elastica,[13] Killing Heidi, Shonen Knife, Skunk Anansie, Spice Girls, Superjesus and Tiddas. Male bands could only offer passé feeding contexts (Nirvana, Pixies, Suede, Living Color) of retro subgenres, such as Punk-Metal,[14] Grunge or Britpop. But if the experience was certain, like Punk, dissensus not consensus was a norm for many participants:

No, evil ha ha…I have a big problem with females in music at the moment, if you’re talking about your, in my eyes, Barbies – Ella Hooper, Killing Heidi (Hex)

The ‘Barbie’ part I can see, the horror [Heavy Metal] I don’t – there is psychological horror, but I think horror is the wrong word to put on it…terror is more like it – Greil Marcus, journalist (Hex)

‘Specular’ (Irigaray, 1985) Riot Grrrl’s many Heavy Metal cover-versions allocated bands like Heart, the Runaways and Girls School as significant influences, disturbing this alleged misogynist boysclub genre with intuitive ‘cool grrrls’.[15] Going further, Girl Power ‘overmimed’ media secondary definitions, untying the definitive gaze of MTV clips with a reflexive awareness that ‘to define “woman” is necessarily to essentialise her’ (Moi, 1985: 139; Straw, 2001; and coolgrrrls.com, 1998). A presentation of self, like symbolic interactionist stigma logic (Goffman, 1979), rock’n’roll genre formation from 1950s ‘Rockabilly’ (variant of hillbilly), 1960s ‘Psychedelia’ (mental hallucinations), 1970s ‘Punk’ (prison putdown), and 1980s ‘Swamp’ (country urbanism) to 1990s ‘Barbie’ (plastic female) displaced and reversed a once mild pejorative term.[16] Hebdige traces this progression back to inverted labelling of ‘black’, ‘funk’, ‘superbad’ and ‘jazz’ (1980: 62-3). Sensing the very real community demand for a subversive female genre in 1998, Rock’n’roll Highschool recording studio’s Stephanie Bourke suggested, ‘it would be great if someone could bring us all together…the scene is definitely there for it’ (Polymer ‘Stone’: 15). While rarely recognised by media secondary definers, pop culture slang and entrepreneur primary definitions do occasionally transmute into mass genre accreditation. Subcultures seeking publicity or ‘street cred’ are criticised for cultivating moral panic (McRobbie and Thornton, 1995: 572). Even Barbie™ doll copyright holder Mattel Corp, after unsuccessful litigation against Aqua (The Beat, 1997), now capitalise with authorised Barbie Party Mix CDs. Yet as Elastica discovered, ‘intellectual property rights are the motor driving much of the music business’ (Breen, 1999: 70).[17] According to Baudrillard, translation of evil (or sexual demonisation) into mere ‘misfortune’ can lead to, ‘a whole culture of misfortune, of recrimination, repentance, compassion and victimhood’ (2007: 145).

In the industry of romance,

New ways to enhance,

Her beauty,

My little doll,

Beauty comes from the soul

‘Barbie Be Happy’ – Essential Logic, 1998

Figure 6: Dissent, Linoleum [with permission from Universal Music]

Figure 6: Dissent, Linoleum [with permission from Universal Music]

5 Dissent: the compact disc

‘Of crucial importance’ to a sociology of rock, album reviews ‘seek simultaneously to provide a consumer guide, to comment on a culture, and to explore personal tastes’ (Frith, 2001: 174). In terms of a consumer guide’, Straw suggests, ‘the genre as the context within which records were meaningful accompanied the rise of the “serious” record review’. That ‘generic economy’, drawn according to Straw from ‘film criticism’ important to academia (2001: 103), might also be traced to Jazz writing. But because ‘most journalists are male’ reviewers, Bayton argues that ‘a hegemonic masculine view tends to predominate in the music press’ (1998: 3). Her comment on the culture’ notes 1990s music as, ‘a genuine female youth subculture with the explicit aim of moving in all areas of the rock world’ (3). A ‘lucky researcher in the right time and place’ (Negus, 1999: 29), I[18] too discovered ‘an attempt was made to create an organised network amongst all-girl bands, via fanzines’ (Bayton, 1998: 75). This distinguished Barbie Rock from the genre symbiosis of Heavy Metal for which, Straw (2001) argues, ‘audiences do not constitute a musical subculture’. Conversely, Metal’s devotion to rock‘n’roll cover versions (rebutting ‘consistent noninvocation of rock history/mythology’ charges – 102-3) is consolidated by the Grrrls own genuine delight in Metal covers. With such reference groups of Punk-Metal cementing Riot Grrrl to Girl Power, exploring personal tastes’ in the 1990s amounts to Barbie Rock Invasion of ‘the most male dominated of rock forms’ (109).

 

Yeah, I mean I’m not familiar with the Linoleum LP you’re talking about, so I can’t really comment on that – John Peel, journalist (Hex)

Barbie Rock?! Hahahaha…tell me, which exponents of Barbie Rock do you feature? – Caroline Finch, Linoleum (Vee)

As the title suggests, Linoleum’s first album (1997) is sexed dissent to rock’n’roll mythology. Summing-up Barbie Rock, singer Caroline Finch says, ‘Dissent is a different way of looking at things, and it’s a different way of song-writing and bringing up things that other people know but don’t usually bring up from a female perspective’ (Finch, 1999: 35). Linoleum encountered the same obstacle course experienced by more high-profile groups, like Elastica (settling out of court with flattered Punk bands, Wire and The Stranglers). ‘We had problems in Australia certainly because another band called “Linoleum” showed up out of the blue…I think they’d put a single out a while before us, and they started demanding huge amounts of money from us for our name. So I know we had quite a lot of difficulty in Australia getting press and things, because we recently weren’t really allowed to be called Linoleum out there. That was a bit of problem. Yeah I think the industry is in a bit of a mess at the moment’ (34). Riot Grrrls were also banned by popular music media (recalling a blanked out Sex Pistols at No. 1) for manifestos, ejected male slam dancers or heckler abuse texta scrawled on bodies. ‘I wonder, I mean there doesn’t seem to be a lot of coverage of female bands.’ Yes, the rock-press also practise social exclusion of music.

Musically, Linoleum’s Barbie Rock vector surrounded Caroline’s cutesy high-pitch to contralto vocals, delivered as rapping Girl Power overmime segués into room tipping specular Riot Grrrl in 4/4. An under-rated lead guitarist for these unidentified times, musician Paul Jones’ high-action manoeuvring wrung out the Heavy Metal power chord with duck walk riffs, surf licks, and free-form feedback. ‘Paul’s got a good set of new pedals and things, so there’s some interesting sounds on our new stuff. But they’re still coming out of the guitar, even if they don’t sound like it. I think that Paul’s particularly good at playing his guitar so that it doesn’t sound like a guitar sometimes. He plays not exactly in a traditional way, so I think that’s how come we get those results’ (34). Caroline’s rhythm converging on Paul’s created the classic dynamic duo of rock’n’roll guitars, only interrupted by Dave’s snap to deep rumble drum or Grunge fuzz faithful bass of Emma. A white noise, wall of sound energy that, ‘takes power out of the hands of the dangerous people…and puts it back into the people who are being creative.’

American producers Paul Kolderie and Sean Slade (also veterans of Hole and The Pixies) engineered and mixed in multi-layered studio flow a creation upgraded to vinyl quality audio depth. The Erik Nitschean-style Mod red, white and blue sleeve design, backed with fresco secco group miniatures, was initially packaged in real lino. ‘The fact that it’s quite tacky and it’s…I love linoleum because it’s not what it appears to be. Especially when it looks like a very glamorous floor and it’s not. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen our records that are packaged in linoleum? We didn’t make that many of them. Ever since we first started up all our flyers, and our first singles were actually packaged in floor covering, which is quite fantastic.’ (37). Track listings for this floored Barbie Rock genius explored matters of masochist masquerade [‘Marquis’], alienation shock [‘Dissent’], risk chic [‘Dangerous Shoes’], social snobbism [‘On a Tuesday’], remote control [‘Restriction’], substance abuse [‘She’s Sick’], post-modern angst [‘Unresolved’], and ad hominem [‘Smear’]. ‘It’s certainly a view of dysfunctional relationships, there’s a questioning of things that don’t work, and I find all these kind of issues more interesting’ (35).

Yeah I wanna be like her,

Ride the bus in my underwear

’Career Barbie’ – The Kowalskis, 2002

Figure 7: Polymer Hex

Figure 7: Polymer Hex

Concluding remarks

Recent music research on sexed subgenre revolutions has examined both Riot Grrrl (Schilt, 2004) and Girl Power (Martin, 2006; Strong, 2007). But this is the first to recognise their interconnection as phases in the key 1990s genre of Barbie Rock, while avoiding assimilation to established genres (but see Riley, 1994; Lumby, 1998; Chugg, 2005). The unidentified factors (Parts 1-3 above) behind social exclusion and social capital until now pre-empting full recognition as a popular music genre are, in a word (detected earlier by Hesmondhalgh), ‘technicism’. In this gatekeeper scenario, 1) a ‘computerisation’ of cultural intermediaries like rock-press hacks succeeded by primary definer world-wide web hackers, 2) accompanied by secondary definer media ‘moral panic’ implosion, and 3) 3D radio freeze-frame to 2D ‘video dominated’ freeze-out (if not ‘cool’), overshadows the all but not seen and not heard infant terrible genre. Technology has ‘inhibited creativity’ (Hesmondhalgh, 2007: 88). However, whether at odds with fashionable iconoclastic slogans like, ‘down with genres’ (Deleuze and Parnet, 1987: 17), this new technology has also empowered creativity. As the very fact of Barbie Rock demonstrates (Toffoletti, 2007).

Yet there is another tendency, apparently inescapable in even the most enlightened works of men, at times unheard by women (Part 4). The men are easy to find (check out Lester Bangs’ ‘Back Door Man and Women in Bondage’). But when Reynolds and Press portray Riot Grrrl’s Huggy Bear ‘in full awareness of its connotations’ as ‘“asking for it”’ (1995: 331). Or female Bayton argues a Girl Power audience would be, ‘only too delighted to give her [Courtney Love] an ironic f***’ (1998: 79), a sense that such projective hysteria stems from internalised sexism is hard to avoid. In that case, men who ‘determine the marketplace’ (Stras, 2010: 4) are uncontested (but see Part 5) rivalling ‘evil speaking evil’ or evil speaking good (including my mere maleness?) noted by Baudrillard (2010: 39). The theory of evil is a leitmotif for ‘the conspiracy of art’ or demonisation of Barbie Rock. In this ‘obstacle race’ of unsung female artists, indicating a ‘social exclusion’ by the arts, the ‘impotent’ (Baudrillard, 1996: 122) hysteria of male ‘rape’ appears the most fitting explanatory metaphor because, ‘it is no longer decency that is threatened with violation, but sex, or rather sexist idiocy, “which takes the law into its own hands”’ (122).[19] Nevertheless, as even their Satanic Majesties, The Rolling Stones signify with their latest best of Grrr, the lived experience of rock’n’roll – from Riot Grrrl to Girl Power – lives on in the music of Barbie Rock.

Most people would look at it as sarcastic right now; cause like no one really talks about it in the genuine sense anymore, even though I love mine – Donna A, The Donnas (Hex)

 

Acknowlegements: Thanks to Jo Grant from NEIS [New Enterprise Incentive Scheme]; Stephanie Bourke of Rock n roll Highschool; Jacqueline Gallagher at Monash University. Also special thanks to Farrago [University of Melbourne], and Rabelais [Latrobe University] for supporting Polymer.

 

References

Abbott-Chapman, J., Denholm, C. and Wyld, C. 2007 ‘Pre-service professionals’ constructs of adolescent risk-taking and approaches to risk management’, Journal of Sociology, 43(3), 241-61.

ABC 2006 ‘Aboriginal report’, Lateline, television program, 15 May.

Age 2006 ‘Urgent call: send troops now to NT’, 20 May, 1.

Age 2007 ‘National emergency: PM acts’, 22 June, 1.

Banks, J. 1998 ‘Video in the machine: the incorporation of music video into the recording industry’, Popular Music, 16(3), 293-309.

Baudrillard, J. 1984 The Evil Demon of Images. Annandale: Power Institute.

Baudrillard, J. 1996 The Perfect Crime. London: Verso.

Baudrillard, J. 2007 The Intelligence of Evil or the Lucidity Pact. Oxford: Berg.

Baudrillard, J. 2009 The Transparency of Evil. Brooklyn: Verso.

Baudrillard, J. 2010 The Agony of Power. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).

Bayton, M. 1998 Frock Rock: Women Performing Popular Music. Oxford: Oxford University.

The Beat 1997 ‘Barbie Song Upsets’, 3 September, 33.

Beilharz, P. 1995 ‘Social Theory in Australia: a Roadmap for Tourists’, Thesis Eleven, 43, 120-33.

Birch, M. 1987 ‘“I’ve got class and I’ve got style”: the politics of popular music’, in Breen, M. ed. Missing in Action. Kensington: Verbal Graphics.

Bonner, A. 2006 Social Exclusion and the Way Out. West Sussex: John Wiley & Sons.

Bourdieu, P. 1988 Homo Academicus. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bradbury, M. and McFarlane, J. Eds. 1976 Modernism. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Bradshaw, J. 2004 ‘How has the notion of social exclusion developed in the European discourse?’, Economic and Labour Relations Review, 14(2), 168-86.

Breen, M. 1991 A stairway to heaven or a highway to hell: heavy metal rock music in the 1990s, Cultural Studies, 5, 193-4.

Breen, M. 1999 Rock Dogs. Annandale: Pluto Press.

Brett, J. 1991 ‘The Bureaucratisation of Writing’, Meanjin, 50(4), 513-22.

Brophy, P. 1987 ‘Avant-garde rock: history in the making?’, in Breen, M. ed. Missing in Action.

Burchardt, T., Le Grand, J. and Piachaud, D. 2002 ‘Introduction’ in Hill, J., Le Grand, J. and Piachaud, D. Eds. Understanding Social Exclusion. Oxford: Oxford University.

Chugg, R. 1989 ‘Rock’n’roll de/generation’, in Brophy, P. ed. Stuffing, Music: Image. Northcote: Stuff.

Chugg, R. 2005 ‘Reasons for dissent: the sociology of barbie rock’, TASA Conference paper University of Tasmania.

Chugg, R. 2007 ‘The beast box: recombinant television’, Continuum, 21(1), 91-106.

coolgrrrls.com. 1998 ‘The e-magazine dedicated to women and music’.

Cohen, S. 1973 Folk Devils and Moral Panics. St Albans: Paladin.

Daly, M. and Silver, H. 2008 ‘Social exclusion and social capital: a comparison and critique’, Theory and Society, 37, 537-66.

Davies, H. 2001 ‘All rock and roll is homosocial: the representation of women in the British rock press’, Popular Music, 20(3), 301-319.

Dawson, J. and Propes, S. 1992 What was the first rock‘n’roll record? Winchester: Faber and Faber.

de la Fuente, E. 2007 ‘The place of culture in sociology’, Australian Journal of Sociology, 43(2), 115-30.

Deleuze, G. and Parnet, C. 1987 Dialogues. London: Athlone.

Driscoll, C. 1999 ‘Girl culture, revenge and global capitalism: cybergirls, riot grrls, spice girls’, Australian Feminist Studies, 14(29), 173-193.

Fabbri, F. 1980 ‘A theory of musical genres’, http://www.tagg.org/others/ffabbri81a.html.

Finch, C. 1999 ‘Linoleum Wipe the Floor of Contemporary Style’, Polymer Vee, 5, 34-7.

Foucault, M. 1976/1981 The History of Sexuality, Volume One. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Frankel, B. 2001 ‘The Rise of the Sociologist King’, Arena Magazine, 52, 20-4.

Frith, S. 2001 ‘The popular music industry’, in Frith, S. et al. Eds., The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock.

Frith, S., Straw, W. and Street, J. Eds., The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock. Cambridge: Cambridge University.

Gaar, G. 1992 ‘Girl Groups’, in She’s a Rebel: the History of Women in Rock‘n’roll. Washington: Seal Press.

Germov, J. and McGee, T.R. Eds. 2005 Histories of Australian Sociology. Carlton: Melbourne University.

Gibson, W. 2006 ‘Material culture and embodied action: sociological notes on the examination of musical instruments in jazz improvisation’, The Sociological Review 54(1), 171-87.

Goffman, E. 1979 Stigma, Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Greer, G. 1999 The Whole Woman. London: Doubleday.

Grossberg, L. 1984 ‘“I’d rather feel bad than not feel anything at all”: rock‘n’roll, pleasure and power’, Enclitic, 8, 94-111.

Grossberg, L. 1995 ‘MTV: swinging on the (postmodern) star’, in Munns, J. and Rajan, G. Eds., A Cultural Studies Reader. London: Longman Chesire.

Hall, S. 2005 ‘New labour’s double-shuffle’, The Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies, 27, 319–335.

Hall, S., Critcher, T., Jefferson, T., Clarke, J. and Roberts, B. 1978 Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State and Law and Order. London: Macmillan.

Harley, R. and Botsman, P. 1982 ‘Between “no payola” and the “cocktail set”: rock’n’roll journalism’, Local Consumption, 2(3), 231-63.

Hebdige, D. 1980 Subculture, the Meaning of Style. London: Methuen.

Herald Sun. 2007 ‘Child abuse alarm, teachers report thousands of cases’, 8 July, 15.

Hesmondhalgh, D. 1999 ‘Indie: the institutional politics and aesthetics of a popular music genre, Cultural Studies, 13(1), 34-61.

Hesmondhalgh, D. 2007 The Cultural Industries. London: Sage.

Homan, S. 2007 ‘Classic hits in a digital era: music radio and the Australian music industry’, Media International Australia, 123, 95-107.

Hubert, J. 2000 ‘Introduction: the complexity of boundedness and exclusion’, in Hubert, J., ed. Madness, Disability and Social Exclusion. London: Routledge.

Irigaray, L. 1985 Speculum and the Other Woman. New York: Cornell University.

Keitley, K. 2001 ‘Reconsidering rock’, in Frith, S. et al. Eds., The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock.

Linoleum 1997 Dissent. compact disc, London: Geffen.

Lotringer, S. 2005 ‘Introduction: The Piracy of Art’, in Baudrillard, J. The Conspiracy of Art. New York: Semiotext(e).

Lumby, C. 1998 ‘The Shock of the Image’, Polymer News, 1, 15-16.

Martinelli, A, 1994 ‘Entrepreneurship and Management’, in Smelser, N.J. and Swedberg, R. Eds., The Handbook of Economic Sociology. New York: Princeton University.

Mathieson, C. 2000 The Sell-in. St Leonards: Allen & Unwin.

Mathieson, C. 2006 ‘Death and the majors’, Meanjin, 65(3), 241-45.

Martin, F. 2006 ‘Women on this planet: globalisation and girl rock in Taiwan’, Perfect Beat, 7(4), 5-31.

McRobbie, A. and Thornton, S. 1995 ‘Rethinking “moral panic” for multi-mediated social Worlds’, British Journal of Sociology, 16(4), 559-74.

McRobbie, A. 2007 ‘Top girls?: young women and the post-feminist sexual contract’, Cultural Studies, 21(4-5), 718-37.

Moi, T. 1990 Sexual Textual Politics. London: Methuen.

MX 2008 ‘Unequal in law, society’, 7 April, 9.

Negus, K. 1999 Music Genres and Corporate Cultures. London: Routledge.

Raphael, A. 1995 Never Mind the Bollocks, Women Rewrite Rock. London: Virago.

Reynolds, S. 1988 ‘Against health and efficiency’, in McRobbie, A. ed. Zoot Suits and Second Hand Dresses. Basingstoke: Unwin Hyman.

Reynolds, S. and Press, J. 1995 Sex Revolts: Gender Rebellion and Rock‘n’roll. London: Serpent’s Tale.

Riley, V. 1994 ‘Women’s Lip’, Real Time, 3, 13.

Rimmer, M. 2007 ‘The Grey Album: copyright law and digital sampling’, Media International Australia, 114, 40-53.

Ritzer, G. 2004 The McDonaldization of Society. Newbury Park: Pine Forge.

Rolling Stone 1997 ‘Women in Rock’ special issue, December.

Schilt, K. 2004 ‘Riot-Grrrl is . . . ’: Contestation over meaning in a music scene.’ in Bennett, A. and Peterson, R.A. Eds. Music scenes: Local, translocal and virtual. Nashville: Vanderbilt University.

Shien, G. 1987 ‘FEMALE NOTES: women’s music’, in Breen, M. ed. Missing in Action.

Stras, L. ed. 2010 She’s So Fine: Reflections on Whiteness, Femininity, Adolescence and Class in 1960s Music. Farmham: Ashgate.

Straw, W. 1984/2008 ‘Characterizing Rock Music Culture:  The Case of Heavy Metal.’, in Michael Ryan, ed., Cultural Studies: An Anthology. Boston: Blackwell.

Strong, C. 2007 ‘Gender and memory: remembering and forgetting the women of rock’, TASA/SAANZ Joint Conference paper, University of Auckland.

Tanner, J., Asbridge, M. and Wortley, S. 2008 ‘Our favourite melodies: musical consumption and teenage lifestyles’, British Journal of Sociology, 59(1), 117-44.

Théberge, P. 1991a ‘“Musicians” magazines in the 1980s: the creation of a community and a consumer market’, Cultural Studies, 5, 270-93.

Théberge, P. 1991b ‘The “sound” of music’, New Formations, 8, 99-113.

Toffoletti, K. 2007 Cyborgs and Barbie Dolls. London: I.B.Tauris.

Virilio, P. 2005 The Information Bomb. London: Verso.

Walker, C. 1996 Stranded. Sydney: Macmillan.

Walker, C. 2000 Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music. Annandale: Pluto Press.

Zappa, F. and Occhiogrosso, P. 1990 The Real Frank Zappa Book. London: Pan.

 

Notes

[1] A song by Captain Beefheart, ‘Rock’n’roll’s Evil Doll’ (1974) encapsulates male fear of women in music for even the most enlightened artist.

[2] Riot Grrrl is an ‘underground feminist punk rock movement’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Riot_grrrl) according to Wikipedia; whereas Girl Power, ‘as a term of empowerment, expressed a cultural phenomenon of the 1990s and early 2000s’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/girl_power).

[3] Ten per cent of national income redistributed from labour to capital (Frankel, 2001: 24).

[4] Quotations are from Polymer back-issues: News (1998), Stone (1998), Inner City (1998), Thing (1998), Vee (1999) and Hex (2000-1).

[5] ‘It’s always useful to remember…that the history of popular music is really traced through the losers rather than the winners, because there are far more of those’, says John Peel (Hex, 2000-1: 30)

[6] For outstanding cultural studies typical of this period, see Grossberg (1984); Straw (2001); and Brophy (1987).

[7] See also Hesmondhalgh (1999: 36) on ‘sell out’ and ‘burn out’.

[8] See Chugg (2007)

[9] Alternately:

Australian avant garde rock then, starts and finishes with the fact that the people born and/or living in Australia make Australian avante garde rock. But such a subcategory carries no mysterious subcultural traits that can differentiate its content and substance from avant garde rock around the world. It is no wonder that groups from Seattle, Brussells, Cornwall, Vancouver and Canberra can provide remarkably similar work without ever having heard each other’s work, simply by plugging into the same historical sources and references from both the histories of art and rock. As in so many instances, “Australianism” might work as a qualification but not a description – (Brophy 1987, pp. 140-1)

[10] I argue that the concept of ‘social exclusion’ retains relevance in cultural contexts.

[11] By Shonen Knife (Japan, 1992), Gloo Girls (USA, 1994), The Lunachicks (USA, 1995), Aqua (Denmark, 1997), Essential Logic (UK, 1998) and The Kowalskis (USA, 2002), respectively. (Now even crossing-over to Country, with Unknown Hinson’s ‘Barbie Q’, and Jack Ingram’s ‘Barbie Doll’)

[12] For ‘grrl’ or ‘grrrl’ spelling, see Raphael (1995: xxiii).

[13] Destiny’s Child was the most successful US female group; Elastica’s album became the fastest selling debut in the UK, et cetera.

[14] Contrasting Punk, Straw highlights Heavy Metal’s ‘triumph of craft production…“empty” virtuosity and self-indulgence’ (2001: 100).

[15] Barbie Rockers covering Heavy Metal include: Babes from Toyland, Baby Animals, The Breeders, Belly, The Cardigans, The Clouds, Concrete Blonde, The Corrs, Daphne and Celeste, The Donnas, Lita Ford, Fur, L7, Linoleum, Ninety Nine, Nitocris, Rebeccas Empire and Superjesus.

[16] For another commodity research double entendre, see Ritzer’s (2004) ‘McDonaldisation’ (itself labelled ‘McWeberian’).

[17] A well-known example is Girl Group, the Chiffons’ ‘He’s So Fine’ plagiarised by ex-Beatle George Harrison – later disclaimed by Chiffons members citing label legal pressures (see also Rimmer, 2007: 40-53).

[18] A mere male.

[19] In this context, ‘sexist idiocy’ is determined by technicism: ‘has not rape perhaps become the unacknowledged by-product of a technological emergency that is becoming routinised?’ (Virilio, 2005: 70)

 

 

Biographical Note: Rock Chugg is a freelance sociologist from Melbourne, with recent research appearing in publications like Continuum, Refractory, and Meanjin.

Volume 26

Contents

  1. “Children should play with dead things”: transforming Frankenstein in Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie –  Erin Hawley
  2. “You gave me no choice”: A queer reading of Mordred’s journey to villainy and struggle for identity in BBC’s Merlin  –  Joseph Brennan
  3. Days of YouTube-ing Days of Heaven: Participatory Culture and the Fan Trailer  –  Kyle R. McDaniel
  4. When a Good Girl Goes to War: Claire Adams Mackinnon and Her Service During World War IHeather L. Robinson 
  5. ‘Rock‘n’roll’s evil doll’: the Female Popular Music Genre of Barbie Rock  –  Rock Chugg
  6. Morality, Mortality and Materialism: an Art Historian Watches Mad Men – Catherine Wilkins
  7. Playing At Work  –  Samuel Tobin
  8. 1970s Disaster Films: The Star In Jeopardy Nathan Smith

 

 

Volume 24, 2014

Themed Issue: Intermediations

Edited by Kevin Fisher and Holly Randell-Moon

Contents:

1. Editorial Introduction — Kevin Fisher and Holly Randell-Moon

2. Animating Ephemeral Surfaces: Transparency, Translucency and Disney’s World of Color  — Kirsten Moana Thompson

3. Vertical Framing: Authenticity and New Aesthetic Practice in Online Videos — Miriam Ross

4. Attached To My Devices: Across Individual, Collective and Panspectric Worlds — John Farnsworth

5. The Ecstatic Gestalt in Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams — Kevin Fisher

6. Intermediality and Interventions: Applying Intermediality Frameworks to Reality Television and Microblogs — Rosemary Overell

7. ‘God Hates Fangs’: Gay Rights As Transmedia Story in True Blood — Holly Randell-Moon

8. We are the Borg (in a good way): Mapping The Development Of New Kinds Of Being And Knowing Through Inter- and Trans-Mediality — Anne Cranny Francis

Defining Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance: Crossing Boundaries of Genre, Media, Self and Other in New Supernatural Worlds – Leigh M. McLennon

Fig.1 “Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series is one of the pioneering fiction series of urban fantasy and paranormal romance.”

Figure 1. Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series is one of the pioneering fiction series of urban fantasy and paranormal romance.

The Emergence of Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy

Although it emerged only in the 1990s, the urban fantasy and paranormal romance genre now exerts a powerful influence on representations of monsters and the supernatural in popular culture.  Over the last 25 years or so, urban fantasy and paranormal romance (hereafter abbreviated as UF/PR) has developed into a new, easily recognisable genre formula: sympathetic vampires (and/or other monsters) join magic-wielding (often leather-clad) heroines to solve mysteries and/or consummate transgressive romances. This genre is now prevalent not only in popular fiction, but in broader popular culture including television, film, comics, RPG, and pop culture and scifi conventions.

Academics, members of the publishing industry and readers alike have noted the prevalence and the commercial success of this new genre. For example, Angela Ndalianis suggests in The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses that “paranormal romance erupted as a runaway success in the 1990s.”[1] And in the years since 2000, UF/PR has continued to rise meteorically in popularity. In “P is for Paranormal – Still,” Lucinda Dyer of Publisher’s Weekly professed in 2010 that “Paranormal is le dernier cri in the romance category—its hold on readers and publishers alike defies any logic or explanation. In its first year it was a phase, then it became a definite trend. Now, it’s a sea change, with no evidence that the tide’s waning.”[2] And book critic and online reviewer Paul Goat Allen has argued that “the last ten years, specifically, in genre fiction have been nothing short of landscape-changing,” suggesting that from 2000 to the present time constitutes “a glorious Golden Age of paranormal fantasy.”[3] Further data from the publishing industry and online reviewers and fans clearly and unequivocally demonstrates the strong impact this new genre on the popular fiction industry and its consumers. [4]

Yet UF/PR remains surprisingly under-appreciated as a coherent body of genre texts. The primary difficulty in studying UF/PR as a genre is that although UF/PR has developed its own set of recognisable genre conventions (including character types, literary motifs and specific themes), these conventions have not been adequately defined or outlined critically. Pop culture industries have proliferated and even parodied[5] a successful genre formula, yet confusion remains for both fans and academics over distinctions between genre labels, distinctions between genres and sub-genres, and consequently over the inclusion or exclusion of particular texts as urban fantasy, paranormal romance, or something else altogether.

Critical confusion over the parameters of UF/PR is suggested by an over-abundance of new genre labels: should we properly label this genre “urban fantasy,” “dark fantasy,” “paranormal romance,” “paranormal thriller,” or “paranormal procedural”? An online search for genre labels such as “urban fantasy” and “paranormal romance” reveals a plethora of author- and fan-based blogs and websites debating the merits and niceties of using each genre categorisation. As Lenny Picker notes in Publisher’s Weekly, developing “a universally accepted definition of the boundaries of paranormal fiction” is a serious challenge. Picker further laments that “there’s just nothing even remotely resembling a consensus, even among some of the top authors with works included in the genre.”[6] Picker here highlights that it is difficult to define the limits of what is included as UF/PR, even for those who write this fiction. Critical analyses similarly have not reached  a clear consensus on how this genre is to be labelled and defined.

The relationship between UF/PR and other popular genres of fiction is also unclear. In Fang-tastic Fiction, Patricia O’Brien Matthews suggests there is also a critical confusion over how this newly-emerged genre relates to other, pre-existing categories of genre. O’Brien Matthews observes, “whether you search online, at a bookstore, or in a library, you will find no consensus as to where paranormal fiction titles are shelved.”[7] Angela Ndalianis similarly observes that “anyone can now walk into a bookshop” and find paranormal titles “in their very own paranormal romance section, but also under romance, horror, science fiction and fantasy, and crime – all in one store!”[8] If UF/PR is shelved in multiple sections in libraries and bookstores, do we understand this fiction as a genre, a subgenre, or a hybrid genre?

Given the newness of UF/PR and these confusions over what UF/PR itself actually constitutes (or is constituted by), it is unsurprising that to date few critics have provided a truly comprehensive and clear history of this genre. But (as will be discussed below) when critics analyse individual UF/PR texts, unless framed by a history of the genre, their analyses too often remain disconnected from significant intertextual and pop-cultural influences. Such intertextual influences extend across different forms in different media (for example, from novel to film, or novel to television). But studies of UF/PR in one textual medium do not often expand their inquiry to transmedia adaptations and iterations. Consequently, they do not recognise which conventions of this genre are transmedia; nor how different media formats may actually influence the conventions and content of UF/PR. The result is a general critical failure to recognise or analyse the significant textual influences of generic hybridity and transmedia formats in UF/PR. Critics subsequently fail to address how individual UF/PR texts operate as iterations that both uphold and subvert the strictures of genre. It is thus difficult to analyse the broader significance of how this popular genre trend is both inflected by and used to explore our own contemporary culture.

A broader history of urban fantasy and paranormal romance is needed. This article aims to provide a definition and history of UF/PR. In doing so, it will provide a platform from which we can better analyse and understand how individual UF/PR texts may generate and contest this genre’s formal and thematic boundaries. With this in mind, my definition of urban fantasy seeks to be specific, delimiting some of the key parameters and conventions of UF/PR, while also being inclusive, allowing for alternative approaches, histories and readings.  First, this article will establish a methodological framework for its genre study of UF/PR. Next, the article will critique several extant approaches to this genre. It will then offer my own original and complementary genre history and definition. Most significantly, this article argues UF/PR is defined in part by generic hybridity. It further argues that UF/PR is both formally and thematically concerned with destabilising boundaries – boundaries of genre, of media, of self and the monstrous Other.  Finally, the article will conclude that understanding how UF/PR transgresses the boundaries of both genre and media is crucial to understanding its current popularity and commercial success.

Genre Theory: A Methodological Framework for Defining A Genre

Before offering a history and definition of UF/PR, it is useful to critically summarise how this genre has previously been defined by academics, the publishing industry, and the fans who consume UF/PR texts. Critically assessing competing genre histories of UF/PR will better position this article to suggest a more comprehensive definition and history below. As Altman suggests, the work of the genre theorist is “to adjudicate among conflicting approaches, not so much by dismissing unsatisfactory positions, but by constructing a model which reveals the relationship between differing critical claims and their function within a broader cultural context.”[9] By critically assessing extant definitions of urban fantasy and paranormal romance, this article is better positioned to reveal and consequently provide evidence to confirm or dispute the conventions of this genre that have been heretofore proposed.

Considering previous genre definitions and histories of UF/PR also highlights (and better positions this article to avoid) two key problems prevalent in performing any genre study. First, there is a problematic critical tendency to view genre as existing in a perfect form at a fixed point in time. Altman suggests these critical problems stem from a traditional, “synchronic” approach to genre theory: “Genres were always – and continue to be – treated as if they spring full-blown from the head of Zeus.” They are analysed, Altman continues, as though they are “fundamentally ahistorical in nature,” existing in an abstract, perfect form that he likens to “platonic categories.”[10] Without an ideal model for a genre, it is difficult to decide whether individual texts uphold or subvert generic conventions. And yet such models are misleading because they suggest the structures of any given genre are “ahistorical” and static.

Second, there is a problematic critical tendency to construct genre history as an inevitable and linear development of what will become a fixed set of conventions. In contrast, Altman suggests that a diachronic approach to genre history ought to focus instead on “on chronicling the development, deployment, and disappearance of this same structure” of genre.[11] In other words, genre history should suggest that what may seem at a particular point in time to be a fixed generic structure is always a dynamic interplay of conventions. As Altman writes in Film/Genre, genre is not a static state but a “process of genre creation,” a “process of genrification” which is “continuous” and “ongoing.”[12] A diachronic approach therefore demands that critics understand genre as a developing set of structures which evolve, cohere and dissolve over time. Moreover, genre history should not tell of the straightforward development of a form of genre, followed by a number of variations on that form: instead, it must allow for the recognition that alternative histories and alternative developments in genre structures are always possible.

In addition to a tendency to ignore how genres continually undergo a process of formation and/or disintegration, previous critical attempts to define UF/PR ignore that this process is what Altman terms “a transactional process whereby conflict and negotiation among user groups constantly transform generic designations.” Altman highlights that the formation of a genre is a process that is engaged in by “user groups,” groups which influence both the “production” of texts and their “reception”: in other words, groups which include members of industry, popular and academic critics, and general audiences.[13] While Altman focuses on the film and television industry, in Popular Fiction Ken Gelder emphasises the importance of considering both production and reception when analysing popular fiction. Gelder argues that genre fiction is “not just a matter of texts-in-themselves, but of an entire apparatus of production, distribution . . . and consumption.”[14] He thus suggests that the process of commercial development and consumption also plays an important role in developing genre. Taking into account the “transactional” nature of the process whereby genre emerges through an “apparatus of production,” my genre definition and history differs sharply from previous critical attempts to define UF/PR because it also seeks to include the observations and analyses of various significant “user groups”: academic critics, authors, members of the publishing industry, and the audiences who consume these texts.

Problems in Defining UF/PR: Competing Histories and Definitions

There are several critical problems that recur in extant histories and definitions of UF/PR. By highlighting these recurring problems here, this article may then avoid them in the history and definition of UF/PR to follow. These recurring critical problems are as follows. First, critics tend to approach UF/PR as a subgenre that has been influenced by a single “parent” genre. Related to this, both critics and fans often exhibit a genre bias, filtering their genre history and definition through the lens of the genre that they perceive to be the primary influence on UF/PR. In attempting to define UF/PR as the generic offspring of another genre, these studies often incorrectly imply that UF/PR is primarily influenced by one other genre in particular: fantasy or romance or Gothic and horror. For example, Ndalianis offers an excellent analysis of “what happens when romance and horror meet” in the paranormal romance genre.[15] However, Ndalianis primarily approaches paranormal romance as a “subcategory” of the broader category of romance fiction (78), thereby disregarding significant influences on UF/PR from other genres such as fantasy or crime fiction. In their critical fan discussion of romance in Beyond Heaving Bosoms, Wendell and Tan also suggest that UF/PR is a “subgenre” of paranormal romance.[16] Conversely, The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature includes “urban fantasy” and “paranormal romance” as genre categories in its study of fantasy fiction, suggesting that one might consider urban fantasy and/or paranormal romance primarily as fantasy genre texts.[17]

In one example of how genre bias may influence definitions of UF/PR, in “Dark Fantasy and Paranormal Romance,” Kaveney gives a definition of a genre she categorises as “dark fantasy,” which includes paranormal romance as one of its subcategories.[18] However, her broad definition of dark fantasy literature fails to distinguish dark fantasy from Gothic and horror fictions more broadly;[19] and her more specific definition of popular dark fantasy relies on invoking conventions from another genre entirely, that of detective and crime fiction.[20] Moreover, Kaveney maintains that paranormal romance is a subcategory of dark fantasy, defined by “the extent to which its plot is determined by its erotic dimensions.”[21] This definition, however, problematically conflates “erotic” fiction with romance fiction, a distinction that is in fact highly significant.[22] Kaveney’s bias toward fantasy fiction in a critical anthology for that genre nonetheless limits her analysis of the significant influences of Gothic/horror, romance and crime genres on UF/PR.[23] Her categorisations of “dark fantasy,” “template dark fantasy” (urban fantasy) and “paranormal romance” are thus unconvincing.

The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature also offers an example of the second problem common to extant critical assessments of UF/PR: critical academic definitions of UF/PR may be alarmingly disconnected from industry and consumer definitions of the same texts. This Cambridge Companion broadly and inexcusably disregards the ways in which the terms “urban fantasy” and “paranormal romance” are used by those who produce and consume UF/PR texts.[24] For example, Kaveney’s use of “dark fantasy” as a genre label is highly problematic because “dark fantasy” is no longer a term popularly used or even recognised by current fans of UF/PR.[25] Irvine’s chapter “Urban Fantasy” similarly disregards the popular usage of this genre label. Irvine offers a very precise definition of this urban fantasy as “a group of texts . . . in which the tropes of pastoral or heroic fantasy were brought into an urban setting,” noting that the genre “quickly grew to encompass historical novels and overlap with . . . new wave fabulism or the New Weird.” Irvine emphasises heavily the role of the city in urban fantasy as both setting and actor in the narrative. But Irvine laments that “the writers of ‘paranormal romance’ have all but co-opted the term” urban fantasy, using it for an entirely different set of texts. In this respect, his focus on fabulist and “weird” urban fictions is starkly at odds with consumer definitions of UF/PR.[26] In fact, Kaveney’s “template dark fantasy” better aligns with the popular conception of “urban fantasy” as a genre category.

Figure 2. Laurell K Hamilton’s Narcissus in Chains (2001) marks a shift in Hamilton’s series from mystery-oriented horror to paranormal erotica.

Figure 2. Laurell K Hamilton’s Narcissus in Chains (2001) marks a shift in Hamilton’s series from mystery-oriented horror to paranormal erotica.

The third critical problem common to extant critical definitions of UF/PR is the way that these definitions consistently attempt to establish urban fantasy and paranormal romance as separate taxonomic categories. For example, by separating urban fantasy and paranormal romance taxonomically, the editors of the Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Fiction strongly suggest that urban fantasy and paranormal romance are distinct modes of popular fiction. Fan outrage over a perceived misuse of these terms also suggests that a distinction can be made between “urban fantasy” and “paranormal romance.” For example, Laurell K Hamilton is controversial among readers of UF/PR for abruptly transforming her Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series (1993-present) from urban fantasy into paranormal erotica in the series’ tenth novel, Narcissus in Chains. For more than a decade, Hamilton has endured significant criticism from fans and anti-fans whose genre expectations are disappointed by the genre shift within her series.[27]

One commonly-accepted distinction between urban fantasy and paranormal romance is whether action/mystery or romance act as the primary narrative drive in the plot. For example, Gwenda Bond notes that in the publishing industry, “the terms urban fantasy and paranormal romance are often used interchangeably. But . . . while the two frequently cross over among audiences, there is a key distinction.” In support of her argument, she quotes Avon Publications’ executive editor Erika Tsang: “In paranormal romance the relationship between the couple is the focus of the main plot. In urban fantasy, the world that the couple exists in is the focus.” In other words, the extent to which the romance constitutes the primary narrative of the text determines whether or not it can be categorised as “paranormal romance”; texts in which a horror- or mystery-based narrative take priority may be more properly considered “urban fantasy.”

In the same article, Bond also quotes Heather Osborn, a romance editor at Tor Books, in another attempt to distinguish urban fantasy from paranormal romance. Osborn determines a genre distinction between urban fantasy and paranormal romance dependent on what romance fans such as Wendell and Tan commonly term the “Happily Ever After” convention:[28] “My number one consideration is if there’s a resolution of the romance at the end of the book. If there’s no resolution of the romance, and it’s in the romance section, readers will let their anger be known.” Bond suggests that for readers, a high content of romance and a romantic resolution play a crucial role in defining a genre text as paranormal romance and not urban fantasy. Bond’s article thus highlights how definitions of genre must negotiate between competing influences from consumers and the publishing industry.[29]

The above examples demonstrate how critics, authors and fans may offer differing and competing histories and definitions of UF/PR as a genre. Though these histories and definitions have been critiqued here, it is important to recognise that such definitions are not necessarily incorrect. Rather, they fail to be comprehensive. Moreover, they are misleading in that they privilege a genre model which understands UF/PR as a subgenre, or even as two distinct genres, which have evolved in a straightforward fashion from one or two parent genres. By attempting to categorise and understand UF/PR as subgenre of horror or fantasy or mystery or romance, and by distinguishing between urban fantasy and paranormal romance as separate subgenres, these definitions obscure the complex generic interplay which actually constitutes UF/PR.

A Genre History of Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance

Rather than attempting to distinguish between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, or trace a genre history through one specific parent genre, this article instead offers a genre history that focuses on how UF/PR has developed as a hybrid genre. In this way, it provides a complementary history to those definitions critiqued above. “Urban fantasy” first emerged as a genre label in the early 1980s. The term categorised a new form of popular fantasy fiction which dramatised a magical incursion into a fictional version of the contemporary, urban world. In this fiction, a human protagonist confronts fairies and elves from an alternative, magical world. In the 1980s and early 1990s, this early urban fantasy was produced by North American writers such as Charles de Lint, Terri Windling,, Emma Bull, and Mercedes Lackey.  In addition to a shared narrative plot, the early urban fantasy texts of these authors also share thematic conventions. First and foremost, early urban fantasy destabilises the boundaries between reality/fantasy and self/Other. Consequently, the protagonist in the text is forced to question his or her own identity and social role in relation to those boundaries. In effect, the protagonist must decide to reject the fantastic Other and maintain conventional binaries and boundaries, or to embrace the possibilities of a multiplicitous identity in new worlds no longer constrained by such binaries and boundaries.[30]

Figure 3. Terri Windling’s Borderland (1986) and Bordertown (1986) are two examples of early urban fantasy series in which the real world and fantasy fairylands collide.

Figure 3. Terri Windling’s Borderland (1986) and Bordertown (1986) are two examples of early urban fantasy series in which the real world and fantasy fairylands collide.

Over time, however, the term “urban fantasy” has been more broadly applied (sometimes retro-actively) to describe other popular speculative fictions.[31] Today it is also commonly used to categorise “weird fiction” by authors such as China Miéville, contemporary fantasy by authors such as Neil Gaiman, and steampunk fiction by authors such as Tim Powers, Scott Westerfield, and Gail Carriger. It is also commonly used to categorise much popular fiction centred on supernatural beings, including werewolves, witches, angels, and the seemingly omnipresent vampire.

Certain examples of vampire fiction in particular had already begun to merge into urban fantasy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Many texts from this period can be retroactively labelled as UF/PR due to their generic blending of fantasy, horror, mystery and action conventions – for example, Lee Killough’s Blood Hunt and Bloodlinks, P.N. Elrod’s Vampire Files series, television series Forever Knight, Tanya Huff’s Blood series, and Laurell K Hamilton’s early Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter novels.[32] Early versions of vampire-centred urban fantasy (including novels by Killough and Elrod, and television series Forever Knight) typically follow a male human protagonist who is transformed into a vampire and subsequently struggles to solve a series of mysteries.

Figure 4. Mercedes Lackey’s Knight of Ghosts and Shadows begins another early urban fantasy series in which the boundaries between the contemporary real world and an alternate fantasy realm dissolve. On its cover, two elves battle in front of the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

Figure 4. Mercedes Lackey’s Knight of Ghosts and Shadows begins another early urban fantasy series in which the boundaries between the contemporary real world and an alternate fantasy realm dissolve. On its cover, two elves battle in front of the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

To date, few academics have adequately accounted for the connection between fairy-centred early urban fantasy by authors such as de Lint, Bull, Windling and Lackey, and this early vampire crime fiction. Instead, critics tend to separate the two kinds of fiction into “traditional urban fantasy” and “contemporary urban fantasy,”[33] or suggest that the labels have been “co-opted” and incorrectly applied.[34] But if we consider formal and thematic hybridity and the transgression of boundaries to be the distinguishing elements of UF/PR texts, this explains how two apparently disparate trends in popular fiction (elves and vampires) merged into the broader category of “urban fantasy” after the year 2000.[35] For example, in early urban fantasy fiction, a human protagonist from the contemporary world is confronted with supernatural knowledge that challenges his or her understanding of reality and identity; similarly, in vampire crime fiction, a human protagonist who discovers the existence of vampires faces a similar challenge to his or her ideological worldview . The presence of a specific supernatural character trope (such as elves or vampires) is less significant than its combination with the broader generic structure of hybridity, a structure which inflects both form (transgressing genre conventions) and content (challenging the power structures of self/Other).[36]

Vampire literature in the 1980s and 1990s primarily explores the destabilisation between the boundaries of fantasy and reality, and self and Other, through the trope of the “humanised” or “good” vampire. The figure of the humanised, ethically and spiritually self-conscious vampire first emerged in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in fictions by Fred Saberhagen, Anne Rice, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, Suzy McKee Charnas, and George R. R. Martin. David Punter and Glennis Byron summarise how the vampire’s role in representing the social Other has changed over the last century due to “the modern humanisation of the vampire.”[37] They define how “in nineteenth-century fiction, the representation of the vampire as monstrous, evil and other serves to guarantee the existence of good, reinforcing . . . formally dichotomized structures of belief which . . . still constituted the dominant world view.”[38] But in vampire fiction in the late twentieth century, the vampire becomes “more sympathetic, closer to the human and much less radically the ‘other’”[39] as “the oppositions between good and evil are increasingly problematized.”[40] The vampires and other “humanised” monsters of UF/PR develop from this earlier trend begun in the vampire literature of the 1970s.

Figure 5. Detective Nicholas Knight from Forever Knight (1992-1996) exemplifies a trend from the late 1980s and early 1990s in which vampire detectives struggle to reject their vampiric nature and behave as “good” humans.

Figure 5. Detective Nicholas Knight from Forever Knight (1992-1996) exemplifies a trend from the late 1980s and early 1990s in which vampire detectives struggle to reject their vampiric nature and behave as “good” humans.

UF/PR in the 1980s and 1990s likewise destabilises the assumed connections between monstrosity, evil and Otherness. For example, vampires like Killough’s Garreth Mikaelian, Huff’s Henry Fitzroy and Forever Knight’s Nicholas Knight struggle against their monstrous ontologies in order to be “good people.” Many of these protagonists face torturous ethical struggles similar to those of Anne Rice’s well-known vampire aesthetes in Interview with the Vampire.[41] However, unlike Rice’s Lestat and Louis, who must drink human blood, vampires in 1990s urban fantasy differ on one important point: to be good vampires, they must refuse to drink human blood. Through their determined abstinence, the vampires of these early urban fantasy texts become the first truly “good” vampires in fiction, television and film. For the first time, vampire fiction in the 1990s broadly explored the concept of vampires who want to do and be good in the human world by acting as human as possible. Throughout this decade, the convention of the abstaining vampire remained popular.

Also in the 1990s, Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake series and Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer follow this same humanist conception that to be a good vampire means to abstain from vampirism and behave as much like a human as possible. In the early 1990s, Hamilton’s vampire-hunting, crime-solving heroine Anita Blake feels conflicted in her attraction to vampires, believing that vampires must be evil if they want to feed from her.[42] Similarly, Joss Whedon’s titular heroine in Buffy the Vampire Slayer can only become romantically entangled with “good” monsters who refuse to feed on humans (for example, the vampire Angel, who possessed his soul; and later the vampire Spike, who was forced to stop feeding on humans).[43]

Anita Blake and Buffy are also exemplary UF/PR texts of the 1990s because they introduce arguably the most significant new genre convention to emerge in UF/PR in this decade: a strong female protagonist in the role of an investigator and action heroine. Characters like Huff’s Vicki Nelson, Hamilton’s Anita Blake and Whedon’s Buffy Summers manifest the contemporary cultural significance of girl-power, and post- and third-wave feminism that emerged the 1990s.[44] These heroines refuse the traditional position of victim in the horror genre. In UF/PR, they instead embrace the agentive role of the heroine.[45]

But in new fictional worlds that challenge the boundaries between fantasy and reality, these heroines struggle in new ways with the destabilisation of boundaries between the self and the Other. As Elaine Graham states in Representations of the Post/Human, “that which is different becomes pathologised as ‘monstrous’ and thus inhuman, disposable and dangerous …. So women . . . are designated inhuman by virtue of their non-identity to the white, male reasoning able-bodied subject.”[46] Graham here explains how women in a patriarchal society are constructed as socially Other, and this Otherness may be framed as monstrosity. Speaking of the role of the heroine in the horror text, Linda Williams argues, in “When the Woman Looks,” that the female protagonist in a horror text experiences “fear of the monster’s freakishness, but also recognizes the sense in which this freakishness is similar to her own difference,”[47] the difference of female Otherness in patriarchal culture. Williams thus suggests that recognition of a shared Otherness can lead to new affinities between monsters and heroines. Female protagonists in UF/PR texts of the 1990s struggle with tensions between their role as heroines who must defeat monstrous Others, their romantic and sexual attraction to monstrous Others, and the recognition that they too are Othered in their role as feminist or post-feminist agents in a patriarchal society.

Figure 6. This season four (2011) poster for True Blood (2008-2014) emphasises the centrality of part-fairy female protagonist Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin). Playing with the gaze, the poster represents Sookie simultaneously as a sexually empowered subject and an object of the monstrous male desire.

Figure 6. This season four (2011) poster for True Blood (2008-2014) emphasises the centrality of part-fairy female protagonist Sookie Stackhouse (Anna Paquin). Playing with the gaze, the poster represents Sookie simultaneously as a sexually empowered subject and an object of the monstrous male desire.

In the years since 2000, female protagonists have dominated UF/PR, typically narrating their own adventures from the first person perspective. In this era, the boundaries between self and Other, human and monster, and good and evil become further blurred. Protagonists no longer simply fight monsters, but themselves become increasingly monstrous. Heroines who began as mostly human in the 1990s become increasing supernatural. For example, beyond 2000 Hamilton’s Anita Blake develops from a mostly-human necromancer to a mostly-monstrous carrier of the lycanthropy virus and a succubus who feeds on sexual activity. And the heroine of Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries, Sookie Stackhouse, begins as a mostly-human telepath but learns she is actually an entirely different monstrous species, a fairy.[48]  In the twenty-first century, many other heroines also begin their series as supernatural creatures outright: for example, Kelley Armstrong’s werewolf heroine Elena Michaels,[49] and Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson, a shapeshifting Native American skinwalker.[50]

As UF/PR has further developed after 2000, the now-supernatural protagonists of UF/PR often live in an innovative new supernatural, fictional world. Prior to 2000, monstrous horror texts generally depicted a protagonist who stumbled onto the secret existence of a supernatural being or even a secret, underground supernatural world. But since 2000, a new kind of fictional world has emerged in which the supernatural is openly acknowledged as a part of the everyday. In this supernatural-yet-everyday world, vampires, werewolves and other supernatural beings live openly in human society, framed as social and cultural minority groups. Laurell K Hamilton pioneered the concept of the everyday-supernatural as a new setting in her Anita Blake series in the 1990s. Since 2000, the everyday-supernatural has become increasingly popular as a fictional setting and is now utilised in series by many popular authors including Jim Butcher, Charlaine Harris, Kim Harrison, Carrie Vaughn, Patricia Briggs, Illona Andrews, Chloe Neill, Kelly Gay and Faith Hunter.

Figure 7. Viral marketing for True Blood (2008-2014) drew on its “everyday supernatural” world model to play with the boundaries between reality and fantasy. A poster campaign here advertises the “Vampire Rights Amendment,” a fictional amendment to the US Constitution which would grant vampires rights as citizens in the human world.

Figure 7. Viral marketing for True Blood (2008-2014) drew on its “everyday supernatural” world model to play with the boundaries between reality and fantasy. A poster campaign here advertises the “Vampire Rights Amendment,” a fictional amendment to the US Constitution which would grant vampires rights as citizens in the human world.

In the everyday-supernatural world, monster hunters and slayers lose their moral certainty as protagonists, further destabilising the binaries of real/fantastic, human/Other and good/evil. As Graham writes, “One of the ways in particular in which the boundaries between humans and almost-humans have been asserted is through the discourse of ‘monstrosity.’ Monsters serve both to mark the fault-lines but also, subversively, to signal the fragility of such boundaries.”[51]  In texts which use everyday-supernatural settings, humans and monsters must constantly renegotiate the boundaries between self and Other in order to co-exist successfully. In these fictional worlds, heroines are no longer able to uphold human law and protect the innocent, because human law can no longer adequately account for cultural and ethical differences between the monstrous and the human inhabitants of society.

At the same time, in many UF/PR texts produced after the year 2000, vampires and other monsters are no longer required to abstain from their predatory hungers (both literal and sexual) to be considered ethically “good.” Instead, they now seek fulfilling, posthuman interconnections with others. Paranormal romances challenge the boundaries between self and the monstrous Other when a romantic attraction causes two potential lovers to re-evaluate their identities and philosophies. And, as Helen Bailie writes in “Blood Ties: The Vampire Lover in the Popular Romance,” in paranormal romance “the taking of blood . . . becomes a necessary element of the sexual relationship” and the vampiric bite “is an affirmation of . . . acceptance of the vampire lover and his environment.”[52] In UF/PR beyond 2000, vampiric feeding is no longer inherently evil. Instead, the vampiric exchange of blood becomes repositioned as a positive act of interconnection which also demonstrates acceptance of the lover’s Otherness.

The popularity of these new genre conventions in the years since 2000 suggests a significant posthuman shift in UF/PR as a genre. David Held has suggested “reason[ing] from the point of view of others” is a significant necessity in the “overlapping communities of fate” created by modern globalisation.[53] Such overlapping communities are geographic and social, but they are also cultural, technological, and ecological. These communities exist in posthuman worlds: worlds which necessitate, in the worlds of Neil Badmington, “a careful, ongoing . . . rethinking of the dominant humanist (or anthropocentric) account of who ‘we’ are as human beings. In the light of posthumanist theory and culture, ‘we’ are not who ‘we’ once believed ourselves to be. And neither are ‘our’ others.”[54] Posthumanist theory argues that the differences between the (white, patriarchal, dominant) humanist self and the (raced, gendered, queer, animal, technological, monstrous) Other have become destabilised in the contemporary world. Since 2000, UF/PR increasingly explores the possibilities and the difficulties of thriving in iterations of contemporary, global, monstrous and post-human worlds. In the twenty-first century, UF/PR uses its communities of monsters to suggest that as we are increasingly enabled and required to see the world from the point of view of the Other in the global world, we are increasingly unable to maintain clear boundaries between what is self and what is Other, who to include and who to exclude, and what is right and what is wrong.

A Definition for Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance

As indicated by this history of UF/PR, the primary elements of this genre can be articulated in a variety of ways. The foregoing chronological history of UF/PR can be combined with Rick Altman’s syntactic and semantic framework for genre in order to give a more functional and specific set of definitions for UF/PR. Altman suggests that genre can be defined both syntactically and semantically to build a more complex picture of how particular genres develop and operate. He argues that

we can as a whole distinguish between generic definitions which depend on a list of common traits, attitudes, characters, shots, locations, sets, and the like – thus stressing the semantic elements which make up the genre – and definitions which play up instead certain constitutive relationships between undesignated and variable placeholders – relationships which might be called the genre’s fundamental syntax. The semantic approach thus stresses the genre’s building blocks, while the syntactic view privileges the structures into which they are arranged.[55]

In other words, a syntactic definition of genre outlines a narrative structure that broadly repeats within a genre, and a semantic definition refers to its recognizable conventions, tropes and motifs. Syntactic and semantic elements interact to create a specific genre text.

This model allows us to define UF/PR as follows. In terms of its syntax, or its basic narrative paradigm: UF/PR combines elements of romance, horror, mystery and/or thriller narratives to tell the story of a conflict and/or an alliance between a human (or human faction) and a supernatural monster (or supernatural faction). This story occurs in a world in which the boundaries between reality and the supernatural fantastic have been destabilised or re-ordered entirely. As the plot progresses, the conflict and/or alliance between factions destabilises the boundaries that define and distinguish self from Other and good from evil within this world. This definition is necessarily broad because UF/PR texts are highly flexible and may articulate this semantic structure in many different ways, hybridising it with a wide variety of conventions from other genre fiction.

A more specific paradigm for UF/PR as a genre can be established by identifying its most prominent semantic elements. These are as follows:

  1. UF/PR is paranormal fiction. Its stories contain paranormal, supernatural, fantastic and monstrous entities. This paranormal element is usually found in excess: UF/PR narratives usually contain not one kind of monster or magic, but many kinds.
  2. UF/PR constructs a specific setting for its fictional worlds. The fictional worlds UF/PR closely mimic our contemporary reality but contain additional supernatural content. Moreover, there are two significant variants of this setting. In one, the supernatural elements of the world are secret, underground and hidden from mainstream society. In the other, there the supernatural is an accepted part of the everyday, existing openly as part of contemporary society.
  3. UF/PR commonly follows a monster-hunter, investigator or detective as a protagonist, utilising a mystery or thriller plotline. Thus, the protagonist must typically work to resolve a conflict, crime or other mysterious event.
  4. The UF/PR protagonist generally possesses a supernatural power or monstrous nature, and often becomes increasingly supernaturally powerful or monstrous as the narrative progresses.
  5. The majority of protagonists in UF/PR are female.
  6. The majority of protagonists in UF/PR also narrate their adventures from the first person perspective.
  7. UF/PR is a hybrid and transmedia genre, utilising elements from many other genres and formats. In this respect, in transgressing the boundaries of genre and media, the form of UF/PR complements its content, which thematically transgresses the boundaries between reality and the fantastic and the self and Other.

Over time the particular elements which are blended in UF/PR from various popular genres have become formulaic. However, not all UF/PR texts use all of these semantic elements of genre all the time. And not all UF/PR series blend these conventions in the same proportions. This is where confusion typically arises over the distinction between urban fantasy and paranormal romance.  This specific yet flexible definition of UF/PR suggests, however, that the significance of a distinction between urban fantasy and paranormal romance has been over-emphasised.

Figure 7. Viral marketing for True Blood (2008-2014) drew on its “everyday supernatural” world model to play with the boundaries between reality and fantasy. A poster campaign here advertises the “Vampire Rights Amendment,” a fictional amendment to the US Constitution which would grant vampires rights as citizens in the human world.

Figure 8.  The poster for Breaking Dawn: Part 2 (2012) shows protagonist Bella Swan, now transformed into a vampire, as she runs toward battle against the Volturi, the ruling vampire council. Even though the Twilight Saga is primarily romance, it thus utilises key conventions of urban fantasy.

For example, even in an apparently straightforward “urban fantasy” text with a male protagonist, such as Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files,[56] we encounter a romance subplot. And even the texts most commonly categorised as “paranormal romance” may utilise elements typically found in urban fantasy. For example, Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight Saga bolsters its primary narrative of a love triangle between human Bella Swan, vampire Edward Cullen and werewolf Jacob Black with other semantic and syntactic elements common to urban fantasy. Typical of most UF/PR protagonists, Bella acquires her own monstrous and supernatural powers when she eventually becomes a powerful vampire herself. And the Twilight Saga includes detailed supernatural world-building, such as supernatural social conflicts which its heroine must resolve. Bella must mediate the broader supernatural feud between the vampires and werewolves of her world; she must also mediate between her good vampire family, and the dangerous vampiric political hierarchy of the Volturi.[57]

It is for this reason I suggest the distinction between urban fantasy and paranormal romance is unnecessary, and prefer to refer to the genre under the umbrella term “urban fantasy and paranormal romance.” Rather than imagining these two modes of fiction as distinct genres, or as distinct subgenres, it is more helpful to consider urban fantasy and paranormal romance as two ends of a broader genre continuum. The model of a genre spectrum allows a broad range of both urban fantasy and paranormal romance texts to be analysed in relation to the same syntactic and semantic elements of genre. Where exactly to place historical paranormal fiction[58] or fairytale retellings[59] on this spectrum is a matter for further analysis. It is almost impossible to account for all possible iterations, combinations and subversions of genre convention in one genre model. However, a conception of UF/PR as a genre continuum allows for a more comprehensive understanding of the relationship between urban fantasy and paranormal romance, and the hybridisation of other generic conventions in texts which are considered UF/PR.

Crossing Boundaries: UF/PR as a Thematically Transgressive, Hybrid and Transmedia Genre

In understanding UF/PR as primarily influenced by one or two other genres, critics, authors and fans alike fail to consider the extent to which UF/PR is constructed through and characterised by genre hybridity. UF/PR transgresses traditional boundaries of genre by simultaneously hybridising, cannibalising and parodying generic structures from other numerous genres.[60] For example, from fantasy fiction, UF/PR may borrow conventions such as extensive serialised world-building, a quest narrative, and a band of unlikely companions as key characters. From the Gothic, it may borrow a vulnerable, emotionally sensible heroine. From American Gothic specifically, it borrows its fictional geographic locations, the challenge of puritan values through sexual deviance, and anxiety about the government of society. Drawing from monstrous horror, UF/PR explores the taboo and abject, the spread of contagion and the loss of self control. The prevalence of vampires in UF/PR also results in texts that invoke conventions of vampire literature, such as the late twentieth century convention of the morally conscientious vampire protagonist or lover. From romance, UF/PR borrows the conventions of a forbidden love (interracial, interspecies and across socio-economic class) and/or the love triangle. Borrowing from chick lit, female protagonists in UF/PR may explore gendered tensions between career and romance, or draw on the convention of the urban affective family. From detective and crime fiction, UF/PR frequently borrows the generic structure of a mystery format, as well as detailed descriptive attention to procedures and forensics, to violent action, and to guns and other weaponry. Like the noir detective, UF/PR protagonists are often social outcasts or loners; they emphasise the significance of toughness in the face of adversity; and they usually uphold a personal moral code that does not necessarily mesh with conventional morality. And UF/PR also draws on science fiction in its speculative nature, its use of advanced technologies and new medical procedures, and even in the construction of futuristic, post-cataclysmic and post-apocalyptic societies.

Kim Harrison’s Hollows series[61] provides a specific example of how these various conventions may blend together in one UF/PR series. Harrison’s protagonist Rachel Morgan combines character tropes from the horror and detective genres: she is a witch/demon who uses her supernatural powers to work as a tough-talking private investigator. Harrison’s fictional world model is a speculative alternative reality that is post-cataclysmic: Rachel lives in a fictional version of Cincinnati that exists after “the Turn,” a historical event in which a batch of genetically modified tomatoes generated a virus that wiped out a large percentage of the human population. The Turn also exposed the existence of supernatural species such as witches, werewolves, vampires, elves, pixies who were immune to this virus. Harrison’s world-model thus draws on conventions of science fiction, fantasy and horror, creating a speculative alternate reality in which creatures from fantasy and horror mingle with advanced medical and scientific knowledge. Rachel forms a detective agency with Ivy, a lesbian vampire, and Jenks, a pixy. As well as following a mystery format, the series also follows the quest narrative of high fantasy fiction when this band of unlikely companions work together not only to solve crimes but to save the city and/or the world from magical threats. Rachel’s band of unlikely companions is also another form of the urban affective family: Rachel, Ivy and Jenks live together and gradually welcome other friends into their close-knit and trusted family group. Harrison’s series also includes a number of romance subplots in which Rachel repeatedly falls for the wrong man – in mystery parlance, an homme fatal. Rachel also experiments with a same-sex relationship with Ivy, pushing the boundaries of heterosexual romance fiction. Harrison’s titles (for example, The Good, the Bad and the Undead and For a Few Demons More)[62] also parody titles in the Western genre. Harrison uses intertextual reference in her titles to position her heroine as a reworking of the Western outlaw-hero. Thus, Harrison’s series is a complex blend of conventions from horror, fantasy, vampire literature, science fiction, crime fiction, romance, chick lit and even the Western.

Figure 9. Kim Harrison’s Hollows series (2004-2014) exemplifies how UF/PR series blend genres.

Figure 9. Kim Harrison’s Hollows series (2004-2014) exemplifies how UF/PR series blend genres.

These examples are not intended as a comprehensive catalogue of the various conventions utilised in UF/PR: rather, the various conventions listed are intended to demonstrate that far from simply being a subgenre of fantasy, horror and/or romance, UF/PR is truly a hybrid genre. It draws broadly from the structures of a number of other genres and subgenres to both reinforce and subvert certain genre expectations. Individual UF/PR texts and series may not utilise all of these structures, but across the UF/PR genre, all these conventions and more are available for analysis. Genre hybridity is so prominent in UF/PR that it should be considered one of the most significant distinguishing factors of this genre.

In addition to crossing the boundaries of popular genres, UF/PR also crosses the boundaries of media. And in addition to a general critical failure to give adequate attention to UF/PR as a hybrid genre fiction, there has also been a general critical failure to analyse how UF/PR operates as a transmedia genre. UF/PR is most prolific as a category of popular fiction, usually formatted as serialised novels. But it also crosses into short story collections, world and series guides with exclusive new materials, ebook-only novellas and short stories (and other materials available via author websites), television, film, RPGs, graphic novels, web series, and even viral marketing and transmedia branding of consumer products.  Yet critics often fail to consider how cross-media adaptation and transmedia storytelling might impact the content and reception of UF/PR texts.

Henry Jenkins writes extensively on transmedia narratives in Convergence Culture[63] and on his blog, Confessions of an Aca-fan.[64] He defines “transmedia storytelling” as “a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.”[65] He further suggests that transmedia storytelling encourages “the production and circulation of knowledge within a networked society.”[66] In addition to this circulation of knowledge, Jenkins suggests that “the encyclopaedic ambitions of transmedia texts often results [sic] in what might be seen as gaps or excesses in the unfolding of the story… Readers, thus, have a strong incentive to continue to elaborate on these story elements.”[67] In this respect, transmedia texts are both participatory and performative. Such texts encourage ongoing audience speculation and discussion, and allow for audience participation and performance in media such as fanfiction and social media.

Jenkins distinguishes transmedia texts from those which are simply adapted from one medium to another, arguing that “we need to distinguish between adaptation, which reproduces the original narrative with minimum changes into a new medium and is essentially redundant to the original work, and extension, which expands our understanding of the original by introducing new elements into the fiction.”[68]  However, he also emphasises the concept of multiplicity, “the possibility of alternative versions of the characters or parallel universe versions of the stories” that emerge as texts develop between media. Jenkins suggests that “Multiplicity allows fans to take pleasure in alternative retellings, seeing the characters and events from fresh perspectives.”[69] The pleasure found in this multiplicity is also possible from more straightforward adaptations between media. If we consider UF/PR as a genre rife with this multiplicity, an understanding of UF/PR as both highly adaptive and transmedia becomes more clear.

It may seem at first as though UF/PR involves primarily straightforward adaptations in which texts are translated from one medium to another. However, UF/PR actually blurs the distinction between adaptation and transmedia storytelling, revelling in the possibilities of multiplicity for its characters and fictional worlds. For example, L.J. Smith’s The Vampire Diaries trilogy has been adapted to a popular television series of the same name.[70] As adaptation, the television series drastically changes the narrative plot and characters of the original series. Far from being a straightforward adaptation of fiction to television, the popularity of the tv series has resulted in the publication of a number of new novels in the series.[71] Moreover, the success of the television series has led to the publication of online-only, tie-in short stories on L J Smith’s official website.[72] Even more surprisingly, as Smith, the series’ original author, no longer writes official Vampire Diaries tie-in novels, she recently began publishing her own “fanfiction” on Kindle Worlds, an Amazon.com fanfiction publishing platform. Through the Kindle format, Smith thus offers fans yet another alternative version of the broader Vampire Diaries narrative.[73] Numerous other UF/PR authors have also produced a range of works that span novels, short story anthologies, world guides, online-only e-books and e-novellas, and graphic novels (for example, Laurell K Hamilton, Kim Harrison, Marjorie Liu, Patricia Briggs and Kelley Armstrong have produced texts across these media).

Figure 10.  True Blood offers an example of a transmedia UF/PR text. Beginning as Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novel series (2001-2013), this text extends across novellas, short stories, companion world guides, as well as the television series True Blood (2008-2014), tie-in graphic novels, and True Blood’s viral and transmedia marketing campaign. Shown here is a viral billboard campaign.

Figure 10. True Blood offers an example of a transmedia UF/PR text. Beginning as Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novel series (2001-2013), this text extends across novellas, short stories, companion world guides, as well as the television series True Blood (2008-2014), tie-in graphic novels, and True Blood’s viral and transmedia marketing campaign. Shown here is a viral billboard campaign.

Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries series provides an even more dramatic example of how one UF/PR text can function as a transmedia text.[74] Harris’ series traverses various fictional genres: novels, short stories, novellas, a Sookie Stackhouse Companion including new “facts” about Harris’ fictional world (and even recipes mentioned in her fiction!), and an encyclopaedic series coda.[75] But Harris’ series also crosses into other media. Most prominently, it has been adapted as True Blood.[76] True Blood adapts material from Harris’ series, but it also contributes substantial new characters, plotlines and world-building to the series. True Blood itself has also crossed into ebooks and graphic novels. In 2008, a graphic novel prequel was released online only,[77]  and a number of tie-in graphic novels depict characters drawn after the corresponding actors in spin-off adventure narratives.[78] True Blood also has a wide transmedia viral marketing campaign that extends beyond the boundaries of traditional narrative media. The True Blood viral campaign includes extensive poster campaigns, tie-in advertising from real companies, functional websites promoting fictional settings and organisations from the series, social media campaigns, audience competitions, behind the scenes footage and bonus scenes made available online (and on dvd), and even a character blog supposedly produced by teen vampire Jessica Hamby.[79]

In The Horror Sensorium, Ndalianis provides a useful analysis of True Blood’s transmedia viral marketing. Ndalianis writes that as a transmedia text, True Blood “participates in a performance that’s about meta-horror – we take delight in the playful fiction that insists that, like the series, vampires are a part of our community . . . the transmedia fictions invite responses of amusement and cognitive play.”[80] Ndalianis suggests here that meta-textuality allows consumers to find pleasure in the blurred boundaries between reality and the fantastic. This suggestion also resonates with the way that UF/PR as a paranormal and hybrid genre also generally blurs these distinctions. For example, UF/PR juxtaposes fantastic conventions from horror with the gritty realism of detective and crime fiction, or treats as mundane the fantastic, supernatural and sometimes absurd hurdles that interfere with romantic relationship-building. This generic hybridity thus also invites “amusement” and “cognitive play.”

An understanding of UF/PR as a genre that crosses boundaries of both genre and media provides a crucial insight to understanding this genre thematically. The boundary-crossing form of UF/PR is echoed in the thematic transgression of boundaries and binary configurations prevalent in its content. As these highly speculative texts transgress the boundaries between mystery, horror, fantasy and romance, and between various media, they also transgress the boundaries between the broader category of the real and the fantastic. In unsettling normative reality to explore the non-normative supernatural worlds, they unsettle established social categories such as self/Other.

Conclusion

Over approximately the past 25 years, urban fantasy has developed into a coherent and recognisable genre of popular fiction. It is likely that the popularity of this genre in this era partially stems from its potential to register and reflect contemporary socio-cultural anxieties, such as the shifts in post- and third-wave feminism, globalisation, and posthumanist shifts in technology, environment and community briefly registered in this article. However, a comprehensive analysis of UF/PR must also offer a commercial and industrial explanation for its popularity.

The serialised, hybrid-genre, adaptive and transmedia formats of UF/PR are essential to its success in popular culture industries. First, as a hybrid-genre, UF/PR becomes accessible to a broad number of fiction readers who may typically read fantasy, or romance, or crime fiction, and may become interested in how these genres blend with elements of the paranormal. Second, the seriality of UF/PR texts defers conclusions, inviting continued consumption over a number of years and sometimes decades. As Jenkins writes, the open end of the serialised text creates “a strong enigma which drives the reader to continue to consume the story even though our satisfaction has been deferred.”[81] Third, both seriality and a transmedia format invite consumers to become invested and to participate in the open spaces of a narrative, spaces which Jenkins describes as “gaps or excesses in the unfolding of the story.”[82] Fourth, as a highly adaptive and transmedia genre, UF/PR is also highly accessible to consumers: Jenkins suggests that transmedia storytelling “reflects the economics of media consolidation” and as such “may expand the potential market for a property by creating different points of entry for different audience segments.”[83] In addition to a strong emphasis on extensive fictional world-building, the deferred conclusions and other open spaces of the narrative invite consumers to seek out other points of accessibility to the broader narrative. In short, the serial, hybrid-genre, adaptive, and transmedia formats of UF/PR contribute strongly to its popular success as a new genre, creating a number of points of accessibility for a broad range of audience members from various other genres and media, and inviting continued playful and participatory consumption.

Since the 1980s, urban fantasy and paranormal romance has developed into a fully coherent and extremely popular new genre. By identifying the destabilisation of boundaries as a broadly recurring thematic element in UF/PR, it becomes possible to consider how this genre might register real, contemporary social anxieties about unstable boundaries. And by identifying UF/PR as a hybrid, serial, adaptive and transmedia genre, we may better understand more generally how genre structures can be invoked in broad yet highly complex ways. UF/PR now predominantly shapes our representations of monsters and the supernatural in popular culture. But only time will tell how long UF/PR may remain popular in its current form and content before it further develops or disintegrates into something new again.

References:

Babyvamp Jessica. http://www.babyvamp-jessica.com/.

“Escape to Romance: Paranormal Romance vs Urban Fantasy.” Book Savvy Babe, http://www.booksavvybabe.com/escape-to-romance-paranormal-romance-vs-urban-fantasy/

“FAQ: Dark Fantasy Fan Track.” Dark Fantasy Fan Track, http://darkfantasy.dragoncon.org/dark-fantasy-faq/.

“New Tracks for 2013.” Daily Dragon. http://dailydragon.dragoncon.org/dc2013/new-tracks-for-2013/.

“Paranormal Picks: The 10 Best Urban Fantasy Series.” All Things Urban Fantasy, http://allthingsuf.com/2012/11/paranormal-picks-uf.html.

“Tor Books Now Offering Urban Fantasy Novels, But They Always Have, Too!” PRWeb. http://www.prweb.com/releases/2009/07/prweb2639804.htm.

Allen, Paul Goat. “In LKH’s 21st Anita Blake Novel, Her Iconic Heroine – and Her Saga – Continue to Evolve.” Barnes and Noble, http://bookclubs.barnesandnoble.com/t5/Explorations-The-BN-SciFi-and/In-LKH-s-21st-Anita-Blake-Novel-Her-Iconic-Heroine-and-Her-Saga/ba-p/1347550.

Allen, Paul Goat. “The 20 Best Paranormal Fantasy Novels of the Last Decade.” Barnes And Noble, http://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/the-20-best-paranormal-fantasy-novels-of-the-last-decade/.

Allen, Paul Goat. “The Controversial Saga That’s Good for Genre Fiction—and Society.” Barnes and Noble, http://www.barnesandnoble.com/blog/the-controversial-saga-thats-good-for-genre-fiction-and-society/.

Altman, Rick. “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre.”  Cinema Journal. 23, no. 3 (Spring, 1984): 6-18.

Altman, Rick. Film/Genre. London: BFI Publishing, 1999.

Arthur, Kerri. “Paranormal Romance & Urban Fantasy: Defining Two Popular Subgenres.” Romance Writers of Australia, http://www.romanceaustralia.com/articles/urban.htm

Auerbach, Nina.  Our Vampires, Ourselves. London: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Badmington, Neil. “Posthumanism.” In The Routledge Companion to Literature and Science, 374-384. Edited by Bruce Clarke and Manuela Rossini. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Bailie, Helen T. “Blood Ties: The Vampire Lover in the Popular Romance,” Journal of American Culture 34, no. 2 (2011): 141-48.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Benoliel, Larissa. “Defining Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance: What’s the Difference?” Heroes and Heartbreakers, http://www.heroesandheartbreakers.com/blogs/2011/05/defining-urban-fantasy-and-paranormal-romance

Bhabha, Homi K. “Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority under a Tree Outside Delhi.” Critical Inquiry 12, no.1 (1985): 144-65.

Bond, Gwenda. “When Love Is Strange: Romance Continues Its Affair with the Supernatural.” Publisher’s Weekly, http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/print/20090525/12458-when-love-is-strange-romance-continues-its-affair-with-the-supernatural.html

Brabon, Benjamin A, and Genz, Stephenie. Postfeminism: Cultural Texts and Theories. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.

Brabon, Benjamin A, and Genz, Stephenie. Postfeminist Gothic: Critical Interventions in Contemporary Culture. Edited by Benjamin A. Brabon and Stephanie Genz. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.

Day, William Patrick. Vampire Legends in Contemporary America: What Becomes a Legend Most. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2002.

Derrida, Jacques. “The Law of Genre.” Critical Inquiry. 7, no.1 (1980): 55-81.

Donohue, Nanette Wargo. “The City Fantastic.” Library Journal, June 1, 2008, 64-67.

Held, David. “Regulating Globalization?” In The Global Transformations Reader: An Introduction to the Globalization Debate, 420-30. Edited by David Held and Anthony McGrew. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2000.

McCune, Alisa, “A Conversation with Charlaine Harris,” SFSite.com, http://www.sfsite.com/05a/ch175.htm.

Dyer, Lucinda. “P is for Paranormal – Still.” Publishers Weekly, (http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/new-titles/adult-announcements/article/43272-p-is-for-paranormal-still.html .

Gamble, Sarah. “Postfeminism.” In The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Post-Feminism, edited by Sarah Gamble, 36-45. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Gelder, Ken. New Vampire Cinema. London: BFI, 2012.

Gelder, Ken. Popular Fiction: the Logics and Practices of a Literary Field. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Genz, Stephanie. Postfeminities in Popular Culture. New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Graham, Elaine L. Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.

Gordon, Joan, and Veronica Hollinger. “Introduction: The Shape of Vampires.” In Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture. Edited by Joan Gordon and Veronica Hollinger, 1-7. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

Grimshaw, Sue. “Paranormal vs Urban Fantasy, What is the Difference?” Romance at Random, http://www.romanceatrandom.com/paranormal-vs-urban-fantasy-what-is-the-difference/

Hamilton, Laurell K. “Dear Negative Reader.” Official Site of New York Times Bestselling Author Laurell K Hamilton,  http://www.laurellkhamilton.org/2006/12/dear-negative-reader/

Hamilton, Laurell K. “Vampires and Paranormal Thrillers.” Official Site of New York Times Bestselling Author Laurell K Hamilton, http://www.laurellkhamilton.org/2009/08/vampires-and-paranormal-thrillers/.

Hogan, Roy. “Urban Fantasy: Science Fiction’s Future?” Media Bistro, http://www.mediabistro.com/galleycat/urban-fantasy-science-fictions-future_b9904.

Holland-Toll, Linda. “Harder than Nails, Harder than Spade: Anita Blake as ‘The Tough Guy’ Detective.” Journal of American Culture.  27, no. 2 (2004): 175-89.

Irvine, Alexander C. “Urban Fantasy.” In The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, edited by Edward James and Sarah Mendlesohn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

James, Edward and Mendlesohn, Sarah, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Jenkins, Henry.  Confessions of an Aca-fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins. http://henryjenkins.org/

Jenkins, Henry. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York, NY: New York University, 2006.

Jenkins, Henry. “The Revenge of the Origami Unicorn: Seven Principles of Transmedia Storytelling (Well, Two Actually. Five More on Friday).” Confessions of an Aca-fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins, http://henryjenkins.org/2009/12/the_revenge_of_the_origami_uni.html

Jenkins, Heny. Textual Poachers: Television, Fans and Participatory Culture. New York, NY: Routledge, 1992.

Jenkins, Henry. “Transmedia Storytelling 101.” Confessions of an Aca-fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins, http://henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html

Karras, Irene. “The Third Wave’s Final Girl: Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” thirdspace: a journal of feminist theory & culture 1, no. 2, (March 2002) http://www.thirdspace.ca/journal/article/viewArticle/karras/50)

Kaveney, Roz. “Dark Fantasy and Paranormal Romance.” In The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, edited by Edward James and Sarah Mendlesohn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Levine, Elana. “Buffy and the ‘New Girl Order’: Defining Feminism and Femininity.” In Undead TV: Essays on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, 168-189. Edited by Elana Levine and Lisa Ann Parks. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).

Little, Jane. “The Pioneers of Paranormal Romance.” Dear Author,  http://dearauthor.com/features/letters-of-opinion/the-pioneers-of-paranormal-romance/.

Luscombe, Belinda. “Books: Well, Hello, Suckers.”  Time.  February 27, 2006, 167, no. 9, 74-75.

Memmott, Carol.  “Romance fans: Vampires are just our type.” USAToday.com, http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/life/books/news/2006-06-28-vampire-romance_x.htm.

Moore, Marsha A.“Urban Fantasy VS Paranormal Romance.” Fantasy Faction, http://fantasy-faction.com/2013/urban-fantasy-vs-paranormal-romance

Ndalianis, Angela. The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company,  2012.

Neale, Steve. “Questions of Genre.” In Film and Theory: An Anthology, 157-178. Edited by Robert Stam and Toby Miller, New York, NY: Blackwell, 2000.

Matthews, Patricia. Fangtastic Fiction: Twenty-First Century Paranormal Reads. Chicago, IL: ALA Editions, 2011.

Pender, Patricia. “Kicking Ass is Comfort Food: Buffy as Third Wave Feminist Icon.” In Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration, 164-174. Edited by Stacy Gillis and Gillian Howie, New York, NY: Palgrave-Macmillan Press, 2004.

Picker, Lenny. “The New (Para)Normal.” Publishersweekly.com, http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/new-titles/adult-announcements/article/51394-the-new-para-normal.html.

Punter, David and Byron, Glennis. The Gothic. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004.

Staiger, Janet. “Hybrid or Inbred: the Purity Hypothesis and Hollywood Genre History.” Film Criticism 22, no.1 (1997): 5-20.

Stikkelbroeck, Caroline, “Monstrum: The Vampire in the Detective Study” (master’s thesis, Brock University, 2007) http://dr.library.brocku.ca/bitstream/handle/10464/1408/Brock_Stikkelbroeck_Caroline_2007.pdf?sequence=1.

Tasker, Yvonne and Negra, Dianne. Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture. Durham : Duke University Press, 2007.

Todorov, Tzvetan. “The Origin of Genres.” New Literary History, 8, no.1 (1976): 159-170).

Vaughn, Carrie. “The Long and Diverse History of Urban Fantasy.” Filling the Well, http://carriev.wordpress.com/2012/04/16/the-long-and-diverse-history-of-urban-fantasy/

Vauhgn, Carrie. “Carrie’s Analysis of Urban Fantasy Part I: The Formula.” Filling the Well, http://carriev.wordpress.com/2009/01/05/carries-analysis-of-urban-fantasy-part-i-the-formula/

Wendell, Sarah and Tan, Candy. Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels. New York: Touchstone, 2009.

Williams, Linda. “When the Woman Looks.” In Re-Visions: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, 83-99. Edited by Linda Williams, Mary Ann Doane and Patricia Mellencamp. Frederick, MD: the University Publications of America and the American Film Institute, 1986.

Williamson, Milly. The Lure of the Vampire: Gender, Fiction and Fandom from Bram Stoker to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. London: Wallflower, 2005;

Zanger, Jules, “Metaphor into Metonymy: The Vampire Next Door.” In Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture, 17-26. Edited by Joan Gordon and Veronica Hollinger, 1-7. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997.

Primary Sources:

Andreyko, Marc and others, True Blood Volume 2: Tainted Love. San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2011.

Armstrong, Kelley. Women of the Otherworld. 13 novels. 2001-2012.

Ball, Alan. True Blood Volume 1: All Together Now. San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2011.

Brennan, Sarah Rees and Larbalestier, Justine. Team Human. New York: HarperTeen, 2012.

Briggs, Patricia. The Mercy Thompson series. 7 novels. 2006-present.

Butcher, Jim. The Dresden Files. 14 novels. 2000-present.

Carter, Angela, The Bloody Chamber. London: Gollancz, 1979.

Clark, Aubrey. The Vampire Diaries: The Salvation Trilogy. 2 novels. (2013-present)

Elrod, P N. The Vampire Files. 13 novels. 1990-2009.

Grahame-Smith, Seth. Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing, 2010.

Hamilton, Laurell K. Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter. 22 novels. 1993-present.

–        Narcissus in Chains. New York: Berkley Books, 2001.

Harris, Charlaine. The Southern Vampire Mysteries. 13 novels. 2001-2013.

–        The Sookie Stackhouse Companion. New York: Ace Trade, 2012.

–        After Dead: What Came Next in the World of Sookie Stackhouse. New York: Ace, 2013.

Harrison, Kim. Hollows. 12 novels. 2004-present.

–        Harrison, Kim. The Good, The Bad and the Undead. New York, HarperTorch, 2005.

–        Harrison, Kim. For a Few Demons More. New York: Harper Voyager, 2007.

Huehner, Mariah, and others. True Blood Volume 3: The French Quarter. San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2012.

Huff, Tanya. Blood series. 5 novels. 1991-1997.

Killough, Lee. Blood Hunt. New York, NY: Tor, 1987.

–        Blood Links. New York, NY: Tor, 1988.

Lackey, Mercedes. Knight of Ghost and Shadows. Wake Forest, NC: Baen, 1990.

McMillian, Michael, and others. True Blood Volume 4: Where Were You? San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2013.

Meyer, Marissa. Cinder. New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2012.

Meyer, Stephenie. Twilight.  New York: Little, Brown, 2005.

Rice, Anne. The Vampire Chronicles. 10 novels. 1976-2003.

–        Interview with the Vampire, New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1976.

–        New Tales of the Vampires. 2 novels. 1998-1999.

Smith, L.J. The Vampire Diaries. 4 novels. 1991-1992.

–        The Vampire Diaries: The Return Trilogy. 3 novels. 2009-2011.

–        The Vampire Diaries: The Hunters Trilogy. 3 novels. 2011-2012.

–  “Matt and Elena – First Date.” http://www.ljanesmith.net/stories/stories/184-matt-and-elena-first-date. 2010.

–  “Matt and Elena – Tenth Date: On Wickery Pond.” http://www.ljanesmith.net/stories/stories/96-matt-and-elena-tenth-date-on-wickery-pond. 2010.

– “An Untold Tale: Elena’s Christmas.” http://www.ljanesmith.net/stories/stories/281-an-untold-tale-elenas-christmas . 2010.

– “Bonnie and Damon: After Hours.” http://www.ljanesmith.net/stories/stories/384-after-hours. 2011.

Wohl, David; Badower, Jason; and Blond. True Blood: The Great Revelation. TopCow Productions Inc and Spacedog Entertainment. 2008.

FILMOGRAPHY

Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Created by Joss Whedon. 1997-2003.

Death Valley. Created by Spider One, Eric Weinberg and Curtis Gwinn. 2011.

Forever Knight. Created by Barney Cohen and James D. Parriott. 1992-1996.

Ghost Ghirls. Created by Maria Blasucci, Jeremy Konner and Amanda Lund. http://screen.yahoo.com/ghost-ghirls/. 2013.

Once Upon a Time. Created by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz. 2011-present.

The Vampire Diaries. Created by Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson. 2009-present.

True Blood. Created by Alan Ball. 2008-2014 (projected end date)

Notes:


[1] Angela Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses (Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Company, Inc, 2012), 76. Ndalianis specifically cites the work of Rebecca Paisley, Nora Roberts, Laurell K. Hamilton, Susan Sizemore, Christine Feehan and Maggie Shayne as evidence of this new romance genre. (For more on early paranormal romance, see Little, Jane, “The Pioneers of Paranormal Romance”).

[2] Lucinda Dyer, “P is for Paranormal – Still.” Publishers Weekly, http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/new-titles/adult-announcements/article/43272-p-is-for-paranormal-still.html (date access November 7, 2013).

[3] Paul Goat Allen, “The 20 Best Paranormal Fantasy Novels of the Last Decade.” Barnes and Noble, http://bookclubs.barnesandnoble.com/t5/Explorations-The-BN-SciFi-and/In-LKH-s-21st-Anita-Blake-Novel-Her-Iconic-Heroine-and-Her-Saga/ba-p/1347550 (accessed November 7, 2013).

[4] While the romance genre began to produce a number of paranormal titles and even dedicated imprints in the 1990s (such as the Silhouette Shadows imprint from Silhouette), as this article will later argue, UF/PR only crystallised into its now-common genre conventions following the year 2000. Reviewer Paul Goat Allen suggests in “In LKH’s 21st Anita Blake Novel, Her Iconic Heroine – and Her Saga – Continue to Evolve” that “a boom in paranormal fantasy” began in 2001 following the success of Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series. In 2006, Belinda Luscombe noted in Time magazine that “More than 170 sagas of paranormal amour hit the shelves in 2004, twice as many as two years before” and noted that popular author Christine Feehan at that time was selling approximately 500,000 copies of each of her new paranormal romance releases (74-75). In the same year, Carol Memmott of USA Today observed a continuing boom in paranormal romance, citing that “Nearly 20% of all romance novels sold in 2005 had paranormal story lines, compared with 14% in 2004, according to Romance Writers of America figures.”  Tim Holman, publisher at Orbit Books, noted that in 2008 urban fantasy accounted for 45% of best-selling science fiction and fantasy fiction, commenting that “the rise of urban fantasy has without any doubt been the biggest category shift within the SFF market of the last 10 years in the US” (in Hogan, Roy, “Urban Fantasy: Science Fiction’s Future?”). In 2009, Tor Publishers officially recognised “urban fantasy” as publishing imprint label,  suggesting that despite the fact that they have long published similar popular fantasy and horror titles, urban fantasy had now gained popular traction as a recognizable genre label (see “Tor Books Now Offering Urban Fantasy Novels, But They Always Have, Too!”). And in 2012, Bloggers at allthingsuf.com suggested that the number of paranormal texts released each year had risen to over 750, which is a marked leap from the approximately 170 cited by Luscombe in 2004 (it should be noted, however, that allthingsuf.com don’t provide a source for this statistic). This selection of data from the publishing industry and online reviewers and fans clearly and unequivocally demonstrates the strong impact of the emergence of this new genre on the popular fiction industry and its consumers.

[5] For examples of UF/PR parodies, see the mockumentary series Death Valley (created by Spider One and others, 2011); novel Team Human (Sarah Rees Brennan and Justine Larbalestier, New York: HarperTeen, 2012); and Ghost Ghirls, a Yahoo-based web series (created by Maria Blasucci and others, http://screen.yahoo.com/ghost-ghirls/, 2013).

[6] Picker, Lenny, “The New (Para)Normal,” Publishersweekly.com, http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/new-titles/adult-announcements/article/51394-the-new-para-normal.html (accessed 19 October 2013)

[7] Patricia O’Brien Matthews, Fangtastic Fiction: Twenty-First Century Paranormal Reads (Chicago, IL: ALA Editions, 2011), 2.

[8] Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium, 80.

[9] Rick Altman, “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre” (Cinema Journal, Vol. 23, No. 3, Spring, 1984, 6-18), 6.

[10] Ibid., 8

[11] Ibid.

[12] Rick Altman, Film/Genre (London: BFI Publishing, 1999), 70.

[13] Ibid., 166.

[14] Ken Gelder, Popular Fiction: the Logics and Practices of a Literary Field (New York: Routledge, 2004), 2.

[15] Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium, 80. See Ndalianis for useful and detailed history of paranormal romance filtered through the lenses of the both history of the romance genre and the history of Gothic fiction.

[16] Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan, Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, New York: Touchstone, 2009, 280.

[17] Edward James and Sarah Mendlesohn, eds., The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[18] Roz Kaveney, “Dark Fantasy and Paranormal Romance,” in The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, ed. Edward James and Sarah Mendlesohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, 214-223), 220

[19] Ibid., 215

[20]Ibid, 219. In fact, the influence of crime and detective fiction is broadly underestimated even in texts where the influence of the mystery genre is overtly referenced. For example, author Charlaine Harris considers her popular Southern Vampire Mysteries novels (2001-2013) to be mystery fiction. Harris stated in an interview with Sfsite.com that “All the Sookie books are mysteries, too. I never think of them as horror, and I’m always astonished when they’re shelved with horror” (Alisa McCune, “A Conversation with Charlaine Harris”). For more on UF/PR as a detective and crime genre, see Linda Holland-Toll’s analysis of the Anita Blake series in “Harder than Nails, Harder than Spade: Anita Blake as ‘The Tough Guy’ Detective”; and the MA thesis of Caroline Stikkelbroeck, “Monstrum: The Vampire in the Detective Study.”

[21] Roz Kaveney, “Dark Fantasy and Paranormal Romance,” 220

[22] Writing predominantly from a fan perspective in Beyond Heaving Bosoms, Wendell and Tan highlight that fans and readers may perceive a marked distinction between romance novels and erotica in this genre (112-114).

[23] Kaveney, “Dark Fantasy and Paranormal Romance,” 215.

[24] For examples of author histories and definitions of their own genre, see in the references to this article: Kerri Arthur, “Paranormal Romance & Urban Fantasy: Defining Two Popular Subgenres”; Carrie Vaughn, “The Long and Diverse History of Urban Fantasy” and “Carrie’s Analysis of Urban Fantasy Part I”; and  Laurell K Hamilton, “Vampires and Paranormal Thrillers”. For examples of fan-based definitions of UF/PR, see blog entries such as:

For more fan-based definitions of UF/PR, see blog entries such as: “Defining Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance: What’s the Difference?” by Larissa Benoliel; “Urban Fantasy vs Paranormal Romance,” by Marsha A Moore; “Escape to Romance: Paranormal Romance vs Urban Fantasy” by “BooksavvyBabe”; and “Paranormal vs Urban Fantasy, What is the Difference?” by Sue Grimshaw.

[25] For example, in 2013 the organisers of Dragon*Con, the largest science fiction and fantasy convention in the USA, divided their popular “dark fantasy” fan track into two separate tracks, “horror” and “urban fantasy” because these terms were more easily recognisable for genre fans. On the former Dark Fantasy Track Blog, the organiser states, “Simply put, I got tired of explaining what I meant by ‘Dark Fantasy.’ There are several different subgenres that are described as ‘dark fantasy,’ and it became necessary to pick one” (“FAQ: Dark Fantasy Fan Track”). See also “New Tracks for 2013” in the Daily Dragon online. This statement suggests that fans of both urban fantasy and the horror genre more broadly do not utilise “dark fantasy” as a genre label, and that Kaveney’s use of this label is therefore inappropriate.

[26] Alexander C Irvine, “Urban Fantasy,” in The Cambridge Companion to Fantasy Literature, ed. Edward James and Sarah Mendlesohn (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012, 200-213), 200

[27] For a succinct summary of the controversy, see Paul Goat Allen’s blog post, “The Controversial Saga That’s Good for Genre Fiction—and Society.” See also Laurell K Hamilton’s response to critical fans in her own blog entry, “Dear Negative Reader.”

[28] Wendell and Tan, Beyond Heaving Bosoms, 142-43.

[29] Gwenda Bond, “When Love Is Strange: Romance Continues Its Affair with the Supernatural,” Publisher’s Weekly, http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/print/20090525/12458-when-love-is-strange-romance-continues-its-affair-with-the-supernatural.html (accessed 20 October 2013).

[30] Other recurring thematic content includes the disruption of the distinction between the pastoral and the urban, as traditional pastoral elements of fantasy intrude on contemporary cities. Some texts explicitly take an ecocritical approach to this breakdown between the pastoral and the urban. For example, Mercedes Lackey’s Knight of Ghost and Shadows (1990) pits an evil real estate developer in contemporary Los Angeles against the elves who reside in its last remaining park spaces.

[31] See also Irvine, who prioritises and analyses these forms of urban fantasy.

[32] Lee Killough, Blood Hunt, (New York, NY: Tor, 1987) and Blood Links (New York, NY: Tor, 1988); Forever Knight (created by Barney Cohen and James D. Parriott, 1992-1996); P N Elrod, The Vampire Files (13 novels. 1990-2009); Tanya Huff, Blood series (5 novels, 1991-1997); and Laurell K Hamilton, the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series (22 novels, 1993-present).

[33] See Nanette Wargo Donohue, “The City Fantastic” (Library Journal, 1 June 2008, 64-67).

[34] Irvine, “Urban Fantasy,” 200.

[35] Early urban fantasy is a hybrid genre because it combines genre of traditional high fantasy such as elves with genre elements from horror, including not only supernatural beings like witches but horror-inflected descriptive material of magical violence. It also combines the traditional fantasy quest narrative of the hero with the mystery narrative of the investigator who must solve a mysterious problem, usually involving a crime. Contemporaneous vampire crime fiction is a hybrid genre because it combines established tropes from vampire literature with elements of detective and crime novels including the lone tough guy protagonist, the femme fatale, and the mystery narrative of an investigator who must solve a mysterious problem, usually involving a crime.

[36] In this sense, “hybridity” is the focus of much post-colonial criticism. Key sources for this use of the term include the work of Mikhail Bakhtin (The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1981) and Homi Bhabha (“Signs Taken for Wonders: Questions of Ambivalence and Authority under a Tree Outside Delhi,” Critical Inquiry 12. No.1, 1985: 144-65).

[37] David Punter and Glennis, Byron, The Gothic (Malden, MA: Blackwell 2004, 270-272), 272.

[38] Ibid., 270.

[39] Ibid., 271.

[40] Ibid., 270. For more on the humanization of the vampire in the 1970s, see also Joan Gordon, and Veronica Hollinger, “Introduction: The Shape of Vampires” (1-7), and Zanger, Jules, “Metaphor into Metonymy: The Vampire Next Door” (17-26) in Blood Read: The Vampire as Metaphor in Contemporary Culture (eds Joan Gordon and Veronica Hollinger, 17-26. Philadelphia, P.A.: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997). See also Nina Auerbach’s seminal history of the vampire text in Our Vampires, Ourselves (London: University of Chicago Press, 1995). More recent analyses of the changing conventions in vampire texts into the twentieth- and twenty-first centuries can also be found in  William Patrick Day’s Vampire Legends in Contemporary America: What Becomes a Legend Most (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2002); Milly Williamson’s Williamson, Milly. The Lure of the Vampire: Gender, Fiction and Fandom from Bram Stoker to Buffy the Vampire Slayer (London: Wallflower, 2005);  and Ken Gelder’s New Vampire Cinema (London: BFI, 2012).

[41] Anne Rice, Interview with the Vampire (New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1976); and The Vampire Chronicles and New Tales of the Vampires, 1976-2003.

[42] Hamilton, Laurell K, Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter (22 novels, 1993-present). See particularly Hamilton’s novels in this series from 1993-1997.

[43] Buffy the Vampire Slayer (created by Joss Whedon, 1997-2003).

[44] For useful discussions of postfeminism and third wave feminism, see Sarah Gamble, “Postfeminism,” in The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Post-Feminism (edited by Sarah Gamble, New York: Routledge, 2001, 36-45); Yvonne Tasker and Dianne Negra, Interrogating Postfeminism: Gender and the Politics of Popular Culture (Durham : Duke University Press, 2007); Stephanie Genz, Postfeminities in Popular Culture (New York:  Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); and Benjamin A. Brabon and Stephenie Genz, Postfeminism: Cultural Texts and Theories (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000).

[45] Buffy in particular has been much-analysed as a figure of post- and third-wave feminism. For example, see Irene Karras, “The Third Wave’s Final Girl: Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (thirdspace: a journal of feminist theory & culture, vol.1 no.2, March 2002, http://www.thirdspace.ca/journal/article/viewArticle/karras/50); Patricia Pender, “Kicking Ass is Comfort Food: Buffy as Third Wave Feminist Icon” (in Third Wave Feminism: A Critical Exploration, edited by Stacy Gillis and  Gillian Howie, New York, NY: Palgrave-Macmillan Press, 2004); and Elana Levine, “Buffy and the ‘New Girl Order’: Defining Feminism and Femininity” (in Undead TV: Essays on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, edited by Elana Levine and Lisa Ann Parks, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007). For an exploration of postfeminism in contemporary Gothic texts, see also Postfeminist Gothic: Critical Interventions in Contemporary Culture (edited by Benjamin A. Brabon and Stephanie Genz, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007).

[46] Elaine Graham, Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002), 53.

[47] Williams, Linda, “When the Woman Looks.” (Re-Visions: Essays in Feminist Film Criticism, eds. Linda Williams, Mary Ann Doane and Patricia Mellencamp. Frederick, MD: the University \Publications of America and the American Film Institute, 1986, 83-99), 87-88.

[48] Charlaine Harris, The Southern Vampire Mysteries (13 novels, 2001-2013).

[49] Kelley Armstrong, Women of the Otherworld (3 novels, 2001-2012).

[50] Patricia Briggs, the Mercy Thompson series (7 novels, 2006-present).

[51] Graham, Representations of the Post/Human, 12.

[52] Bailie, Helen T. “Blood Ties: The Vampire Lover in the Popular Romance” (Journal of American Culture 34, no. 2, 2011, 141-48), 145.

[53] Held, David. “Regulating Globalization?”(in The Global Transformations Reader: An Introduction to the Globalization Debate, edited by David Held and Anthony McGrew, 420-30. Malden, MA: Polity Press, 200) 425-6.

[54] Neil Badmington, “Posthumanism” (in The Routledge Companion to Literature and Science, edited by Bruce Clarke and Manuela Rossini, New York: Routledge, 2011, 374-384), 374.

[55] Altman, “A Semantic/Syntactic Approach to Film Genre,” 10.

[56] Jim Butcher, The Dresden Files (14 novels, 2000-present).

[57] Meyer, Stephenie, The Twilight Saga (4 novels, 2005-2008).

[58] For example, Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing, 2010).

[59] For example, popular television series Once Upon a Time (created by Edward Kitsis and Adam Horowitz, 2011-present); the fairytale retellings of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (London: Gollancz, 1979); and Marissa Meyer’s cyborg Cinderella novel, Cinder (New York: Feiwel and Friends, 2012).

[60] Critics such as Jacques Derrida, Tzvetan Todorov and Janet Staiger question the use of the term “hybridity” in genre analysis. in “Hybrid or Inbred,” Janet Staiger rejects the use of the term “hybridity” in genre analysis, arguing that “since poststructuralism hypothesises [the] breaching of boundaries and impurity to be features of  every  text, then any text located as an instance of genre would also, ipso facto, breach generic boundaries.” Staiger thus argues that to some extent, any text may be read as hybrid-genre.

Staiger’s analysis echoes the genre criticism of Tzvetan Todorov. Todorov suggests that all genres may be distinguished by this breaching of boundaries: “transgression, in order to exist as such, requires a law that will, of course, be transgressed.” Todorov thus implies that the laws of genre are only able to be distinguished by comparing how specific iterations of genre transgress those laws.  Staiger also echoes Derrida, who similarly argues that “every text participates in one or several genres, there is no genreless text; there is always a genre and genres, yet such participation never amounts to belonging. And not because of an abundant overflowing or a free, anarchic, and unclassifiable productivity, but because of the trait of participation itself, because of the effect of the code and of the generic mark.” Derrida suggests here again that genre is a process in which texts participate; moreover, that it is common for texts to belong to multiple genres. Thus, as these critics suggest, it is common for individual texts to transgress the boundaries of genre, or to attempt to recombine elements of multiple genres in new ways.

However, is nonetheless possible to define hybridity as a significant, distinguishing factor of UF/PR because UF/PR utilises these hybrid structures not just in individual texts that participate in genre: it utilises hybrid structures of genre overtly, across the UF/PR genre as a whole. I would even suggest that paranormal texts which do not perform some hybridisation of structures from other popular genres do not qualify as UF/PR at all. As UF/PR has developed, this hybridity may become taken for granted – for example, hybridising conventions from romance fiction with conventions of vampire literature is now common. But it nonetheless remains definitive. Again, the prevalence of this hybridisation throughout UF/PR is again suggested by the compound labels given to this genre. Compound, two-pronged genre labels such “urban fantasy,” “popular romance,” and “paranormal procedural” imply that the combination of multiple popular generic structures in these texts is so prominent as to be definitive. See: Jacques Derrida, “The Law of Genre” (Critical Inquiry, 7, no.1, 1980, 55-81), 65; Tzvetan Todorov, “The Origin of Genres” (New Literary History, 8, no.1, 1976, 159-170), 160. Janet Staiger, “Hybrid or Inbred: the Purity Hypothesis and Hollywood Genre History,” (Film Criticism 22, no.1, 1997, 5-20), 9, 15-16

[61] Kim Harrison. Hollows. 12 novels. 2004-present.

[62] Kim Harrison, The Good, The Bad and the Undead (New York, HarperTorch, 2005) and For a Few Demons More (New York: Harper Voyager, 2007).

[63] Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York, NY: New York University, 2006).

[64] Jenkins, Henry, Confessions of an Aca-fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins (WordPress: http://henryjenkins.org/, 2013).

[65] Henry Jenkins, “Transmedia Storytelling 101,” Confessions of an Aca-fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins, http://henryjenkins.org/2007/03/transmedia_storytelling_101.html (accessed 03 November 2013).

[66] Ibid.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Henry Jenkins, “The Revenge of the Origami Unicorn: Seven Principles of Transmedia Storytelling (Well, Two Actually. Five More on Friday),” Confessions of an Aca-fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins, http://henryjenkins.org/2009/12/the_revenge_of_the_origami_uni.html  (accessed 03 November 2013).

[69] Ibid.

[70] L J Smith, The Vampire Diaries, 4 novels, 1991-1992; The Vampire Diaries (created by Julie Plec and Kevin Williamson, 2009-present).

[71] L.J. Smith, The Vampire Diaries: The Return Trilogy and The Vampire Diaries: The Hunters Trilogy; Aubrey Clark, The Vampire Diaries: The Salvation Trilogy (2013-present).

[72] “Matt and Elena – First Date” (2010), “Matt and Elena – Tenth Date: On Wickery Pond” (2010), “An Untold Tale: Elena’s Christmas” (2010) and “Bonnie and Damon: After Hours” (2011), available at http://www.ljanesmith.net/stories/stories.

[73] L.J. Smith, “Blogs from 2014: L J Smith’s new Vampire Diaries series,” L J Smith Official Site, http://ljanesmith.net/blog/2014/635-l-j-smith-s-new-vampires-diaries-series (accessed 15 April 2014).

[74] Charlaine Harris, The Southern Vampire Mysteries (13 novels, 2001-2013).

[75] Charlaine Harris, The Sookie Stackhouse Companion, New York: Ace Trade, 2012, and After Dead: What Came Next in the World of Sookie Stackhouse, New York: Ace, 2013

[76] True Blood, created by Alan Ball (2008-2014; projected end date).

[77] David Wohl, Jason Badower and Blond, True Blood: The Great Revelation, TopCow Productions Inc and Spacedog Entertainment, 2008.

[78] Alan Ball and others, True Blood Volume 1: All Together Now (San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2011); Marc Andreyko and others, True Blood Volume 2: Tainted Love (San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2011); Mariah Huehner and others, True Blood Volume 3: The French Quarter, (San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2012); Michael McMillian and others, True Blood Volume 4: Where Were You? (San Diego, CA: IDW Publishing, 2013).

[79] The blog “BabyVamp-Jessica.com” (http://www.babyvamp-jessica.com/) includes written blog entries and video entries starring actress Deborah Ann Woll, who plays Jessica on True Blood.

[80] Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium, 181.

[81] Jenkins, “Revenge of the Origami Unicorn.”

[82] Jenkins, “Transmedia Storytelling 101.”

[83] Ibid.

 

Bio: Leigh McLennon is currently a PhD candidate in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne. During her candidature at the University of Melbourne, she has also participated in a graduate exchange with the Department of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests include genre fiction, popular culture, Gothic literature, Shakespeare, 19th century literature,  posthumanism, and feminist theory.

 

Everything in this World is Artificial: Media Contagion, Theme Parks and the Ring Franchise – Jessica Balanzategui

The Ring Franchise

Figure 1. Publicity poster for Sadako 3D (2012)

Figure 1. Publicity poster for Sadako 3D (2012).

The circuits of transnational production sparked by Ringu (Hideo Nakata, 1998)[1] — which remains Japan’s most commercially successful domestic horror film ever released — are polyvalent and anfractuous, constituted of almost unprecedented levels of cross-cultural exchange, regeneration, and diversification across multiple mediums and platforms.  The Ring films[2] have become such a powerful cultural phenomenon that a varied range of insightful criticism about them exists[3], most of which concentrates on the first Japanese film and the equally influential American remake, The Ring (Gore Verbinski, 2002).[4] Yet considering that the Ring texts’ mythos of an uncontainable transmedia virus increasingly extends beyond the fictional diegesis to underpin the real life mechanics of the franchise, I suggest that their evocation of contagious transmediation has not yet been adequately examined. This is hardly surprising considering that the extent to which this contagion would creep into the real could barely be appreciated until recently: the newest film additions to the Ring franchise, Sadako 3D[5] and Sadako 3D 2[6] (Tsutomu Hanabusa, 2012 and 2013), have been surrounded by a swirl of visceral and engaging promotional texts which destabilise the traditional dichotomy between the films as ‘main events’ and the secondary media that promote them. Considered instead as a multiplicitous array of texts offering variegated modes of embodied participation and engagement, I suggest that in Japan the recent additions to the Ring franchise (subsequently referred to collectively as ‘Ring’) have augmented trans- and cross-media mechanics to such an extent that Ring is becoming less a film franchise and more like a disembodied theme park. Just as the thematic locus of the Ring series is a monstrous eruption through media boundaries, the film series that is Ring increasingly mutates and extends its tendrils beyond the cinematic frame.

Partly as a result of this intense media saturation in Japan, the basic narrative framework underlying the Ring franchise has reached the status of almost universally recognizable cultural fairy tale.[7]  The mythemic nucleus of Ring’s plot —which remains in some form across the vast web of Ring texts — is that a young girl with vague supernatural powers (called Sadako in the Japanese versions) is brutally murdered after being thrown down a well and left to die.  Her vengeance festers while her spirit remains trapped in the well, and she uses her psychic powers to implant her thoughts, a series of surreal images which eerily undermine any conception of narrative coherence, onto a videotape or another optical media apparatus. When her images are viewed, the spectator becomes ‘infected’ by them and is doomed to die within a week unless they copy and pass them on. The culmination of Sadako’s curse involves her eruption through the screen on which her image appears, killing the reluctant spectator. Ultimately, the anxieties projected by Ring constellate around the capacity of mediated images for uncontainable, contagious proliferation, and the resultant threat that media technologies may infect and overcome the human subject.

Figure 2. Sadako emerges from the television. Ringu (1998).

Figure 2. Sadako emerges from the television. Ringu (1998).

 

Tracing the movements of the Ring texts demonstrates that, in parallel to the thematic core of the Ring universe itself, the franchise has propagated like an infectious virus: constructing linear models of progress from originals to remakes and reboots is largely a fruitless task.  A brief outline of the emergence of the franchise at the turn of the millennium in Japan illustrates this condition. The first film Ringu was based on the bestselling novel Ring (1991) by Koji Suzuki, who is commonly known as the “Japanese Stephen King” (Suzuki has also suggested that he was inspired by Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982)[8]). While the movement from Suzuki’s book to Nakata’s wildly successful film has been much discussed, elided in current discourse on the Ring franchise is the fact that Nakata and his screenwriter Hiroshi Takahashi were also informed by a made-for-television movie version of Suzuki’s novel titled Ring: Kanzenban (Ring: The Complete Edition, Fuji Television, 1995).[9] A sequel to Ringu was produced concurrently with Nakata’s film featuring the same cast, but with a different crew: Rasen (Spiral, 1998), directed by Jôji Iida, who also wrote the screenplay for Kanzenban. This film, which closely followed the plot of Suzuki’s book sequel of the same name, performed poorly at the box office in comparison to smash hit Ringu, so the production company, Omega Project, rapidly developed a new sequel which deviated from the plot of Suzuki’s books, Ringu 2 (Nakata, 1999), which was a moderate success.

The same year, another television series was produced by Fuji, Ringu: Saishûshô (Ring: The Final Chapter – like the previous “Complete Edition”, a rather ironic title). The series consisted of twelve hour long episodes, and would be followed by a second, ‘sequel’ series (which in fact diverged greatly from the first), Rasen, constituted of thirteen hour long episodes. In 2000, a prequel to Nakata’s Ringu was released, Ringu 0: Bāsudei (Birthday, Norio Tsuruta, 2000), a year which also saw the release of two Ring videogames, The Ring: Terror’s Realm (Asmik Ace Entertainment) for the Sega Dreamcast and Ring: Infinity (Kadakowa Shorten) for the Bandai WonderSwan, a Japanese handheld gaming deviceIn parallel to this vast array of texts, multiple manga volumes have been produced (eleven to date), all of which both re-imagine and extend Ringu’s story to varying degrees. Suzuki also continues to add new additions to his Ring series, which currently is constituted of three novels and one collection of short stories. Suzuki’s subsequent books have been strongly influenced by the myriad of other texts ‘based’ on his original novel. There has also been a Korean remake of Ringu, The Ring Virus (Dong-bin Kim, 1999). In addition, the aforementioned American remake, The Ring, was successful both with critics and at the box office, and spawned a sequel directed by Ringu’s Nakata (The Ring Two, 2005). The focus of this essay, Sadako 3D[10], has been termed a reboot in English language media coverage, but it in fact stems from the story of the first three films, while building on the 1999 television series Ring: The Final Chapter and Suzuki’s Ring sequels Loop (1999) and S (2012, as yet unpublished in English).

Clearly, the Ring franchise is an unruly beast, extending into a multiplicity of rhizomatic mutations which distort the boundaries between specific mediums and narrative worlds. In fact, as both Chika Kinoshita and Thy Phu have pointed out, the term “J-horror”, used transnationally to denote “Japanese horror”, does not necessarily signify a nationalized film genre, but, to use Kinoshita’s term, more of a “movement.”[11] As Phu observes “the prefix [J] functions as a floating signifier aptly capturing the relative fluidity with which these films [and, I would add, non-filmic texts] circulate….The term anticipates and allows for its adaptability.”[12] While the Ring franchise undoubtedly represents a constellation of both trans- and cross-media texts in functional terms, it in turn unsettles clear delineations between these two categories, and in fact the chaotic transgression of media boundaries is central to both the aesthetics and uncanny affects of the franchise.

In fact, this disruption of the borders between texts, screens and mediums and the underpinning disturbance of the distinction between ‘real life’ and ‘mediated artificiality’ ultimately overpowers (or perhaps defies the possibility of) any hermetic notion of narrative coherence across the franchise. In this sense transmedia contagion — conceived as a mutation between platforms as opposed to a coherent cross-media retelling or extension of narrative — has become the ideo-aesthetic core of the franchise, and is not just an extra-diegetic condition of its delivery.  This contagion occurs because Sadako functions as a transmediated being who infects the real. Her viral curse reduces humanity and technology to the same function by using both as vessels for the proliferation of her image, which in turn works to fuse audiences into this monstrous incarnation of a transmedia universe. In so doing, Sadako also embodies a collapse in the boundaries between reality and its signification, exposing what Jean Baudrillard refers to as the “tactical hallucination”[13] involved in maintaining outmoded dichotomies between authenticity and artifice, signifier and signified in a simulacral, postmodern society.

While Ring extends beyond national boundaries as a result of both the transnational success of the original Japanese film and through subsequent remakes in the US and Korea, this article narrows its focus to the Japanese Ring tradition because it is within the context of its cultural homeland that the franchise has been the most enduring and influential. I suggest that this is largely because the franchise works through particular anxieties about the over-determined relationship between national progress, technology and cultural authenticity in Japan. In particular, this article explores the ways in which the Ring franchise increasingly expresses anxieties surrounding the theme park — an important symbol of troubled progress in Japan.

FIgure 3. On of the screen crawling shots of Sadako from Ringu (2012)

Figure 3. One of the screen crawling shots of Sadako from Ringu (1998).

The Ring Sensorium

The Ring texts have always implicated audiences in the horror of their fictional universes: they imply that as a result of being subjected to Sadako’s cursed video in the process of watching the film, the viewer, mirroring the on-screen victims, has become infected by Sadako’s curse. Thus, a central component of the mythos is a monstrous form of transmediation in which the human viewer becomes just another machinic conduit for Sadako’s image. As Anthony Enns states: “Ringu takes the logic of the mind-machine interface [to extremes] by suggesting that … processes of psychic transference can actually work in both directions: [Sadako’s] mind is certainly capable of transmitting and storing images directly onto optical media, but such stored images can also imprint themselves onto the perceiver’s psychic apparatus.”[14] That Sadako’s cursed images extra-diegetically infect the viewer’s mind is invoked with further potency by the conceit that Sadako has the ability to erupt through the screen which projects her image and enter the real space of the spectator. Such a mechanism impels the spectator to become a participant within the narrative, instead of an observer outside of the on-screen universe.

I suggest that this visceral mode of ‘spectatorship’[15] can be explicated through the lens of Angela Ndalianis’ “horror sensorium”, a concept which illuminates the “kind of experiences the senses mediate and give meaning to in our encounter with contemporary horror cinema.”[16] Ndalianis’ sensorium denotes the indissoluble fusion of cognition, emotion and sensation involved in audience engagement with horror films. Thus, the sensorium provides a model for the relations between film and audience which allows consideration of the deep entwining of the cognitive and the visceral that constitutes the Ring franchise’s mechanics. The texts under discussion foreground and revolve around the manner by which they interface with audiences, accentuating our conscious acknowledgement of the space where “the medium and the human body collide.”[17] This visceral collision of medium and body in turn enunciates the collapsing together of mediated images/corporeality and artificial signs/reality that underpins the increasingly theme park-esque dynamics of the franchise. In addition, as will be shown, the Ring franchise employs theme park aesthetics to express deep cultural anxieties associated with national progress in Japan. The analytical framework provided by the sensorium helps to uncover how the Ring franchise’s mediation on complicated cultural tensions is intertwined with the texts’ aesthetics and visceral affects, and not by any means separate from them.

In compliment to Ndalianis’ concept of the horror sensorium, I will draw on insights garnered from Scott Lukas’ astute analysis of the theme park and its increasingly ubiquitous position within contemporary culture — the effects of which I suggest are particularly prominent within the Japanese cultural consciousness. In parallel, I refer to the anxieties raised in particular by Baudrillard about the theme park as the apex of simulacral illusion, a space which fosters the misapprehension that in our contemporary hyperreal society there remains a clear distinction between signs and reality. The presence of the theme park is not only increasingly rendered in the Ring franchise through the visceral affects of the films (which are in themselves ever drawing closer to theme park attractions), but because the anxieties raised by Sadako and her media-proliferated virus echo those surrounding the sinister invasion of the theme park space into the very core of reality. As Lukas explains, critics from Alan Bryman to Baudrillard “are concerned that [the] movement of the theme park form [from an enclosed space to a cultural mode] will result in a loss of the authenticity of life. Like a virus, a terrorist or a moral panic, the theme park threatens everyday life itself.”[18] Anxieties constellating around the theme park thus parallel those central to the Ring: that media technologies have staged an insidious take-over of the real.

The Ring media enact this invasion by impelling audiences to interact with Sadako’s universe and the tensions it expresses in participatory and embodied ways. As Jackson observes of the first film, “the viewer’s feeling that she, too, may have been “infected” by the film’s images situates the horror of the experience in the body. This disallows the purging experience that the horror movie . . . could provide, and instead leaves an anxious trace behind it.”[19] In the last few years in particular, the Ring franchise has started to play with this distortion between mediated artificiality and reality by extending Sadako’s reach into the physical world via theme park-like spectacles, attractions and events which insist on the primacy of embodied participation rather than passive ‘viewing’.

For instance, to promote the release of Sadako 3D, a walk-through maze attraction was established at the indoor theme park Sega Joypolis in Tokyo — a tradition which has been in place since the release of Ringu, ensuring that Ring has had a near constant presence at Joypolis for over a decade. The maze reproduced the narrative of the film in micro-form, placing participants ‘inside’ Sadako’s world by echoing the media hybridity of theme park attractions, layering brief clips from the film with simple audio-visual effects and a real life ‘tour guide’, playing the part of a computer technician, who mediated the participants’ interface with the attraction. He led us through different rooms featuring computer and television screens which reacted to our presence in mysterious ways. Predictably, the final room contained a mossy well. Throughout the attraction, “Sadako” (a person in costume) would emerge from unexpected spaces in each room and stagger towards us, and the experience culminated with her chasing us out of the attraction.

Also in conjunction with Sadako 3D, on the main street in Tokyo’s Shibuya (in fact, at the world’s busiest intersection, Shibuya crossing) a “Sadako parade” was held, in which fifty “Sadakos” (people dressed as Sadako-emerging-through-the-screen) marched up and down the street, interacting with spectators. The parade culminated in a large float, akin to those featured in theme park character parades, featuring a giant Sadako dragging herself through a screen and reaching out towards onlookers. Sadako also became a part of the pre-game entertainment at a major baseball game at Tokyo Dome, throwing the first pitch, as seen in the video below.[20]


Sadako throws the first pitch, Tokyo Dome, 2012

Figure 1: Sadako 3D Parade at Shibuya Crossing, images from Japanator.com, 2012.

Figure 4. Sadako 3D Parade, japanator.com, 2012.

This trend of the theme park-like attraction or spectacle began early in the franchise with ‘pranks’ on Japanese television programs (such as the video below, which aptly went viral on youtube), in which “Sadako” physically emerges from some space ‘behind’ the television screen at the climactic moment in the film. This constitutes a fourfold layering of spectatorship — viewers of such pranks watch people watch Ringu, who are in turn watching fictional character Ryuji watch Sadako’s monstrous emergence from the television screen. Such mise-en-abyme mirrors the stacking up of media experiences and layers of engagement central to the theme park. Pranks like this one encourage a form of active, playful spectatorship, in which we enjoy the vicarious thrill involved in watching others in modes of extreme sensorial engagement.


Japanese Pop Group ‘Morning Musume’ fall prey to a Sadako prank.

The experience of watching others screaming out of terrified delight on rollercoasters and similar thrill rides is sewed into the spatial and experiential geography of the theme park. Thus like the Ring franchise, theme parks revolve around a temporally plural mode of spectatorship, fostering anticipation, and perhaps exhilarating dread, for our own future engagement with thrill rides, and also re-invoking our experience from the recent past. Such theme park-esque incitement of the sensorium deepens the implication in Ring that our fusion with optical media is disruptive to our own subjective wholeness, placing the human body frighteningly at the mercy of media technologies even as we willingly conflate and engage with them. At the core of many theme park rides is the thrilling realization that we are placing our comparatively fragile bodies under the control of formidable machines, which draw us to the extreme limits of sensorial engagement; we are rendered powerless when fused to such machines, before being thrust into a realm of exhilarating simulated danger.

The aesthetics that have come to dominate the Ring franchise in recent years thus allow a playful engagement with the hybridization and layering of different mediums, technologies and experiences that similarly constitute the theme park. Ndalianis explains that:

contemporary horror is marked by an excess of self-referentiality and remediation that is as multifarious as the conglomerate structure that produces it. It gives rise to a hybrid logic that has significant ramifications for genres and the critical models used to analyse them and, in the case of the theme park attractions, this is all the more so because of the excess media hybridity.[21]

As the Ring franchise develops beyond the first decade of the new millennium, the play on this media hybridity and transgression between boundaries of technologically-mediated artificial world and the ‘real’ has become central to its mechanics — exceeding any specific focus on character or narrative. The locus of Sadako’s monstrosity is in fact her inscrutable lack of a subjective core, leaving it impossible for audiences to discern where she is placed on the human-machine continuum. Yet as well as being central to her eerie affects, this lack of a coherent character paradoxically ensures  that Sadako can be a very adaptable media darling, as her image is rendered endlessly re-locatable across Japanese media. For instance, Sadako recently appeared as “Hello Kitty” in Sanrio’s Sadako 3D—Hello Kitty tie-in, which featured stickers, mugs, and notebooks available for purchase at film-screenings and at the Joypolis park. Evidently, Sadako’s inescapable hybridity and penchant for disseminating her cursed image across multiple mediums has far exceeded the confines of a unitary fictional narrative.

Figure 2: Sadako 3D and Hello Kitty tie-in, images from alafista.com, 2013.

Figure 5. Sadako 3D/Hello Kitty tie-in, alafista.com, 2013.

Lost Decades and Cursed VHS Tapes: Sadako and the Collapse of Technological Progress

Sadako’s indiscriminate incursion of Japanese media texts, and the comingling of fear and playfulness that underlies it, relates to her resonant embodiment of the collapse of secure narratives of technological progress in Japan.  Technology has been central to Japan’s hyper-accelerated transition to modernity since the Meiji Restoration of 1868 – 1912, a rapid socio-cultural shift undergirded by what Susan Napier refers to as “highly conscious ideology of national progress”[22]: in pursuit of global agency after opening to Western trade, Japan’s feudal structure was replaced with a market economy and the country underwent a rapid process of industrialization. From the Meiji period onwards, fixations on futurity became mediated through the sparkling horizons promised by technological advances. Following Japan’s traumatic defeat in World War II and the subsequent Allied Occupation (1945-1952), this fixation with progress was resurrected with deepened exigency and impetus, albeit set along new axes: the quest for progress became anxiously determined as the means by which Japan could overcome its victim status and reconfigure a sense of national identity.

Yet even before the War, beneath preoccupations with national progress lurked a series of tensions. The ambivalence is summed up in the saying wakon-yosai (Japanese spirit, Western technology), which became something of a mantra pre-war, but continues to characterise Japanese attitudes towards technology. From the time of the Meiji Restoration onwards the quest for modernity, while overtly successful, was underpinned by an unstable series of dichotomies. As Kevin Doak elucidates, “modernity was defined in a variety of ways (and therefore tended toward obscurity): at times it represented a foreign influence — the West; at other times it referred to the Meiji state and its ideology of ‘civilization and enlightenment.’”[23] Narratives of rapid technological progress attempted to reconcile this discordant constellation of principles, and in some ways served to uneasily suppress them.

Throughout the Meiji period strong emphasis was placed on ‘catching up’ with the West through technological and industrial development, and in some cases this process included the conscious disavowal of ancient Japanese traditions.  Both Gerald Figal[24] and Ramie Tateishi suggest that one of the most prominent reforms of the Meiji education system was Tetsujiro Inoue’s discourse on “monsterology”, which emerged in the late 1890s and attempted to eliminate any reference to supernatural folklore in favour of a more ‘rational’, Western-style ideology. As Tateishi explains, “coded as illogical and chaotic, and thus antithetical to the project of modernisation, such elements were targeted as the embodiments of those qualities that needed to be eliminated in the name of progress.”[25] ‘National progress’ became even more anxiously determined after the War: a condition of the Allied Occupation was that Japan must abandon important tenets of its traditional culture, such as the sacred power of the Emperor and state Shinto, enforcing the wholesale re-modelling of Japanese cultural identity. The resolute quest for rapid economic and technological progress once again became the way in which the Japanese negotiated this cultural upheaval.

Japan’s extremely rapid, and, under the circumstances, rather astonishing economic and technological progress following WWII has long been held up as an example to be emulated and respected, and promptly became central to the rebuilding of the nation’s sense of pride in overcoming traumatic defeat. In fact Napier suggests that “post-war Japan has become something of a myth if not a full-blown fantasy.”[26] Yet despite being  extremely successful, this was an investment in technological progress that was always to be somewhat fraught, especially considering the uneasy repression of Japan’s pre-modern past that became a necessary (and at the time of the Occupation, enforced) side-effect of this progress.

As galvanized by the postwar constitution imposed on Japan — which includes a provision that Japan must forever renounce war and global conflict — much of the emphasis of Japan’s post-war economic advancement was placed upon leisure technologies, which rapidly became central to the way in which the nation projected its image both domestically and globally.  At the pinnacle of Japan’s rapid economic progress from the 1970s to the late 1980s, one such technology was the VHS video tape — the eerie conduit for Sadako’s curse in Ringu — invented by the (at that time) independent Victor Company of Japan.  As Phu explains, the VHS tape sealed in “its victories with competing developments such as Betamax, the laserdisc and electronic disc, Japan’s much envied stature as a technological superpower” and became associated with the “dominance of a ‘national’ innovation.”[27] VHS was the unlikely success story of an independent Japanese company which won the hard fought battle for technological domination of the home entertainment sector at that time.

At the time of Ringu’s domestic release in late 1998, VHS was still ubiquitous, but the DVD had been introduced in America only a year before; subsequently, VHS was faced with a swift obsolescence. By the time Ringu and its sequels were marketed heavily overseas by DreamWorks and Universal Studios in the early to mid-2000s (particularly with the release of the box-set Ringu Anthology of Terror in 2005), the films were largely released on DVD. The aesthetics of Sadako’s curse amplify the temporal lag and liminality underlying the Ring franchise’s global emergence at the fold between analogue and digital video storage. Sadako’s VHS curse is presented entirely in grainy black and white, consisting of images constructed using frontal lighting which produces an extremely flat and thin spatial aesthetic, recalling the frontal lighting and resultant flattened aesthetics of very early Japanese film (which was in turn mimetic of Kabuki theatre).[28]  Sadako’s tattered long white gown and angular movements are evocative of even more distant pasts: emerging as she does from a well in a forest clearing, Sadako appears like one of the vengeful female ghosts of pre-modern Kabuki, Noh and ukiyo-e (woodblock prints) centred on kaidan, or ancient ghost folklore.  Thus at the brink of the millennial turn, Sadako, a monstrous remnant of both prior stages of technological development and Japan’s ‘chaotic’ spiritual past, infected a device which symbolized Japanese technological supremacy at the very moment when it was tipped to be overcome by the new, ‘purer’ digital technology.[29]

Enhancing this eerie sense of the past reinstating itself in a disturbance of technological progress, Ringu was released in the midst of the collapse of Japan’s bubble economy. This sudden breakdown in economic progress proved extremely hard to overcome, and the period of economic stagnation from the mid-1990s into the new millennium became known as the “lost decade.”[30] As indicated by the terminology, the lost decade figured a sweeping ideological rupture to narratives of unbridled national progress — a phenomenon that had not occurred on such a scale since WWII. As Fletcher and von Staden elucidate, “the experience of the lost decade has been traumatic for Japan ….Observers no longer claimed that Japan was ‘number one’…. [T]he effects of the economic stagnation linger as the nation has not found a way out of its economic purgatory of slow growth over the past two decades.”[31]  Emerging as it did in this milieu of collapsed progress, Ringu’s raising of a pre-modern spectre who possesses supposedly ‘current’ VHS technology just as it was faced with impending obsolescence — harnessing this technology to project images redolent of the earliest stages of Japanese film history — held a disruptively asynchronous power.

Despite the fact that VHS is now obsolete, the VHS tape curse of the original film remains deeply uncanny in its raising of a premature, but seemingly prescient, ‘analogue nostalgia’ for the fitful, grainy qualities of the VHS. In fact, even in 1998, Nakata consciously endeavoured to enhance the imperfection of the analogue image by passing it through a computer and applying a special effect to enhance the washed-out, snowy quality.  It is as if the unruly, repressed elements of Japan’s cultural history are rendered by the snowy aesthetic of Sadako’s cursed tape. In fact audio-visual static heralds Sadako’s imminent appearance in Ringu, while posing a threat to the protagonists by obscuring the already enigmatic images and audio contained on the tape — images that the characters are tasked with decoding in their attempts to ‘solve’ the mysteries of Sadako’s curse. These efforts to penetrate the static and decipher the cursed video are ultimately doomed, because Sadako’s curse is buttressed not by humanistic reason but by her mechanistic impulse to reproduce and disseminate the grainy images. Sadako’s curse, it seems, works to deconstruct linear models of progress, reducing coherent images of national identity into a meaningless swarm of seething pixels.

Sadako’s Cursed Video, Ringu, 1998

[Abandoned] Theme Parks

As the Ring franchise develops and the VHS tape becomes increasingly culturally extraneous, the franchise has gradually ungrounded its ties to any one particular technology by instead adopting the mechanics of the theme park: less a singular media technology than a technologically-mediated realm, in both a physical and immaterial sense. As Lukas suggests, “as architectural objects theme parks are solidified forms, but as imaginative objects they are ephemeral, gaseous, rhizomatic”[32], and Baudrillard, using Disneyland as a metonym, suggests that the theme park “is a perfect model of all entangled orders of simulation.”[33]  In this realm, as in the Ring universe, humans willingly become sutured into an asymmetrical relationship with a dizzying array of mediated images and machines. Unlike the VHS tape, the theme park remains culturally relevant not only through the wispy tendrils of nostalgia for something lost— although in many ways, as will be shown, the Japanese theme park is also steeped in a nostalgia for the past rendered unsettling — but as a prominent spatial and cultural presence in Japan. Like Sadako herself, the theme park is a domain which mutates in accordance with technological developments, yet at the same time draws attention to the constructed-ness of teleological, linear models of progress.

In his discussion of Disneyland, Umberto Eco contends that the theme park represents a space in which “absolute unreality is offered as real presence”[34] as the artificial sign unashamedly lays itself bare as the real thing. For this reason, Eco describes the theme park as the “Absolute Fake” borne “of the unhappy awareness of a present without depth.”[35] Contemporary Japan can be considered as such a depthless present, characterized by the falling away of the master-narrative of technological progress which had previously buttressed conceptions of cultural identity, a future-fixated model which also reconciled the concomitant displacement of traditional cultural modes inherent in Japan’s shift to modernity. In fact, anxieties about the loss of cultural authenticity had seethed beneath this model of progress from the earliest decades of the 20th century, yet are disconcertingly exposed in the wake of the lost decade. As Tetsuo Najita explains, writing soon before the collapse of the economy, since the Meiji Restoration “technology as a system of knowledge and production belonged to the Western Other, and had been directly imported into the native historical stream rendering much of that history artificial.”[36]  Especially when considered alongside the spectre of the abandoned theme park — a ubiquitous and eerie presence throughout Japan — the theme park can be seen as a receptacle for the anxieties surrounding technological progress and cultural authenticity which have come to haunt contemporary Japan.

The theme park amalgamates all of the ambivalence surrounding the wakon-yosai formulation writ large and in feverishly neo-baroque form.[37]  Spaces akin to early amusement parks, such as America’s Coney Island, began to emerge in Japan in direct coincidence with the opening of Japan for Western trade in the final years of the Edo period. The first, Hanayashiki Amusement park in Asakusa, Tokyo, was opened in 1853, soon after the arrival of Matthew Perry’s US Naval fleet. It was first designed as an attractive commodification of traditional Japanese customs and to showcase Japan’s natural beauty to the Western interlopers: Hanayashiki means “flower viewing place.” Yet during the Meiji period, it gradually transformed into something of an exhibition space for ever more advanced attractions and rides, extravagantly expanding on ideas borrowed from the West, such as the Ferris Wheel and the roller coaster. Hanayashiki is still in existence, and throughout its over 160 year life span increasingly advanced rides and attractions have been stacked into what is quite a tiny space. Baudrillard suggests that “when the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning,”[38] as the simulated reconstruction of the past — a tangible yet artificial (re)construction of “pastness” — comes to stand in for the past itself. He suggests that nostalgic images of “pastness” become anxiously over-determined in post-modern, simulacral societies because “our entire linear and accumulative culture would collapse if we could not stockpile the past in plain view.”[39] Evidently Hanayashiki plays such a cultural function, attempting to conceal the cultural hollowness of the present by frantically amassing remnants of a lost past even as it projects a narrative of continual progress.

Figure 3: Hanayashiki Amuseument Park in Asakusa, Tokyo. Image by Tallon4.com, 2013

Figure 6. Hanayashiki Amusement Park in Asakusa, Tokyo, Tallon4.com, 2013.

The maintenance of the past’s visibility is a particularly important yet precarious exercise in Japan, for, as the example of Hanayashiki demonstrates, narratives of Japanese cultural identity attempt to balance an ideology of rapid national progress — both an import of and reaction to Western cultural imperialism —with traditional Japanese customs. At Hanayashiki, the spectres of the park’s historical purpose as a flower viewing garden remain in simulated form: at the centre of the park is an artificial mountain which contains a flower viewing area, and there is also a man-made lake surrounded by kitschy incarnations of traditional Japanese shrines and artefacts. Even the entrance ticket visualises the park’s existence as thread to the past, depicting a faded, black-and-white image of the park as it was in the 1850s bordered by a technicoloured, neo-baroque frame which stands in for the frenetic Hanayashiki of the present. The park ultimately crumbles any distinction between ‘authentic’ cultural history and the artificial reconstruction of it in the present: the convoluted space presents a disorienting simulacral archaeology of national progress. Notably, Hanayashiki makes a brief appearance in failed Ringu sequel Rasen, reflected as an eerie space in which protagonist Ando engages in a moment of haunted nostalgia for his dead son, the memory of the dead child and the retro theme park united in their evocation of troubled progress.

While Hanayashiki has been active since 1853, many Japanese theme parks have in fact had a strangely transitory existence. Throughout the period of Japan’s immense economic strength from the late 1970s to the late 1980s, a great number of theme parks were built all over the country. Theodore Gilman explains that “theme parks were a popular economic development tool in the 1980s in Japan, and the spread of these facilities to the most rural regions is due entirely to policy diffusion supported by both local and national governments.”[40] These spaces have often been held up as peculiar incarnations of the wakon-yosai formulation due to their specific themes, many of which offer warped simulacra of Western cultural modes or spaces. Such parks have included Gulliver’s Kingdom (a space at the base of Mount Fuji which incarnated the world of Gulliver’s Travels), Western Village (a Wild West park in Tochigi, complete with animatronic cowboys and a miniature Mount Rushmore), and Nara Dreamland, a Nara park modelled on Disneyland (yet without the necessary copyright permissions), complete with a magic castle and spatially identical main street.  With the sudden bursting of the economic bubble and subsequent economic downturn of the late 1990s which continues to loom over contemporary Japan, many of these extravagant theme parks have been forced to close down.

Without the economic support to either sustain or completely remove them, there are now many abandoned theme parks dotted around Japan in various states of disrepair, including each of those listed above. While many of them have been vandalised or damaged extensively (which, in the case of Gulliver’s Kingdom did eventually lead to the removal of most of the larger structures), some sit largely intact on the edges of cities concealed beneath overgrowth and rust, or in the case of Nara Dreamland, locked up and patrolled by a single security guard. The decaying remnants of such parks, which were nostalgic for imaginary pasts even in their prime, are eerie incarnations of nostalgia at the interface between the personal and the cultural, representing times of joy and sanguinity both within the personal lives of many Japanese and as a cultural symbol of the boom period of the 1970s and 1980s. The utopian models of the theme park have thus broken down in these spaces; representative of a feverish optimism that is now overcome by melancholic silence, inertia and decay, these ex-parks linger as spectres of the period of rapid economic growth and technological development that has since been lost, while embodying the present economic stagnation.

Figure 4: Robotic John Wayne at the abandoned “Western Village” in Tochigi, and the derelict “Gulliver’s Kingdom”, which was demolished in 2007, at the base of Mount Fuji. ‘John Wayne’ image by Michael Grist, MichaelJohnGrist.com, and ‘Gulliver’ image by Old Creeper, https://www.flickr.com/photos/mutantmandias/334922922/sizes/o/

Figure 7. Robotic John Wayne at the abandoned “Western Village” in Tochigi, MichaelGrist.com, 2013. “Gulliver’s Kingdom” at the base of Mount Fuji, weburbanist.com, 2011.

While the abandoned theme park retains a haunting presence within Japan’s socio-cultural and physical landscape, the few major theme parks which have withstood the lost decade and attained some level of permanence are prominent components of contemporary Japanese culture. The Japanese version of Universal Studios is the most lucrative tourist attraction in Osaka, while Tokyo is home to a number of hugely popular theme parks: Tokyo Disneyland was the first Disney park to be built outside of the US and has long been the third most visited theme park in the world behind the Magic Kingdom in Florida and Disneyland in California, while the nearby Tokyo DisneySea is the fourth most visited.[41] Tokyo is also home to Fuji-Q Highland at the base of Mount Fuji, which recalls Hanayashiki in its harnessing of Japan’s environmental iconography to create a technologically mediated, tourist friendly fantasy space.

Figure 5: Abandoned Nara Dreamland.1st image by Ralph Mirebs, ralphmierbs.livejournal.com, 2nd by Bram Dauw, konbini.com

Figure 8. Abandoned Nara Dreamland, ralphmirebs.livejournal.com/konbini.com, 2013.

The dialogic relationship between the active and the abandoned theme park — the former representing the successful continuation of the national narrative while the latter signifies its dark underside and failure — invokes on a grand scale the aesthetic of distorted progress previously outlined as a condition of Sadako’s cursed videotape. This mechanism is particularly potent when considering the extent to which theme park aesthetics seep into the Japanese every day. Baudrillard suggests that in an American context:

Disneyland is presented as imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real, when in fact …America [is] no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation. It is no longer a question of a false representation of reality… but of concealing the fact that the real is no longer real, and thus of saving the reality principle.[42]

However in Japan, it seems that acknowledgement of the hyperreal register of society can barely be suppressed any longer, so ubiquitous are processes of imitation and simulation: as Donald Richie quips, “looking at Tokyo one …wonders why the Japanese went to all the trouble of franchising a Disneyland in the suburbs when the capital itself is so superior a version.”[43] Theme park aesthetics have found their way into the very core of everyday architecture and practices — from elaborate themed shopping malls (such as Odaiba’s “Venus Fort”, styled after 17th century Venice), restaurants (like the “Robot Restaurant” in Shinjuku) and Love Hotels (for instance the Jurassic Park themed “Hotel Jzauruss” in Beppu), down to the ubiquitous plastic food models which stand in for menus in the shopfronts of many Japanese restaurants. Even city main streets, such as Dotonbori in Osaka, adopt the conditions and aesthetics of a theme park: in addition to a giant Ferris Wheel, Dotonbori’s defining signifier is its huge animatronic crab, and it is a frenzy of lights, sounds, screens and hyperbolic performative architecture.  Thus in Japan, the borders between the overtly hyperreal zone of the theme park and ‘reality’ are by no means clear or fixed, suggesting that the ‘reality principle’ Baudrillard refers to has long been unstable in Japanese culture.

Figure 6: Dotonbori, Osaka – City Main Street as Theme Park. Images by JKT-c, cecilleephotography.com and dreamstime.com, 2013

Figure 9. Dotonbori, Osaka – Main Street as Theme Park, JKT-c/cecilleephotography.com/dreamstime.com, 2013.

Sadako 3D

Drawing on Baudrillard’s concern that the theme park space undermines the dichotomy between reality and hyperreality even as it seems to reinforce it, Lukas explains that “the performance of architecture … is based on a definitive crime against reality”[44] as imagined fantasy features indistinguishably intermingle with those imitating ‘real’ buildings or places, destabilizing attempts to locate a reference point based in reality.  This process is akin to what Baudrillard refers to as “the murderous capacity of images” [45], the ‘perfect crime’ in which the artificial murders the real without the perpetrators or the ‘corpse’ of the real ever being traced. Baudrillard characterises this condition as the third-order of simulation, as we exist in the realm of hyperreality while deluding ourselves of its solidity and reality.[46] The suggestion here is that the real has been replaced by simulations before we were even aware that it was missing: a mechanism which characterizes Sadako herself. In fact, the threat that reality has already long disappeared even as the characters strive to maintain a ‘real’ existence forms the underlying core of Sadako 3D: the film enacts the failure of the reality principle, as the characters come to the uncanny realization that they exist within an endless realm of artificial simulations which cannot be distinguished from ‘originals’.  A minor character in the film twice repeats the rhetorical suggestion, “Isn’t everything in this world artificial?”; long gone are the days when Sadako’s mediated realm was contained within the cavity of a videotape.

The film depicts in carnivalesque form the revelation that while Sadako may have once been limited to the TV screen in your living room, now that screens, signs and images have become ubiquitous in the contemporary theme park of Japan, nowhere is safe. Throughout the development of the franchise Sadako has displayed an adept litheness in response to technological change, shifting her curse from video tapes to cameras, floppy disks and computers, and in Sadako 3D she infects the internet, a pervasive presence in Japan. In so doing, Sadako crumbles illusions of progress, as each new technological development is reduced to the same function: to relentlessly proliferate Sadako’s image. Sadako 3D further collapses the distinction between Sadako’s mediated realm and the real by suggesting that victims no longer even have to watch her video to be subject to her curse, they merely need to stumble upon one of the internet webpages where the video was once embedded, rendering the simple “404: Page Removed” error life-threatening. Multiple characters are killed after Sadako bursts through their cell phone screens, and one man is killed via his tablet screen as he waits for a bus. Towards the end of the film, a central character runs out onto the street in an attempt to escape the screens that surround him in his home, and presses his body against a truck in relief, as this comfortably tangible, quotidian object seems to reinstate the primacy of the real. Yet, unbeknownst to him, it is an ‘advertruck’ which carries a huge video billboard, and Sadako drags him beyond it. This moment of course parallels the aforementioned ‘real life’ Sadako advertruck which was driven around the streets of Shibuya to promote the film’s release.

The implication in Sadako 3D that Sadako’s virus may have already insidiously taken over the real resonates strongly with the contagious proliferation of theme park aesthetics in Japan, an anxiety that is also expressed by Sadako’s eerie lack of a coherent subjective core. Like the ring imagery which is metonymic of the franchise and evokes Sadako’s endless cycle of contagion, the Ring increasingly side-steps the need for a discernible centre, freely proliferating without extending any particular or unitary narrative thread. The horrors of this lack of a narrative core are central to the first film, Ringu. The protagonists spend the duration of the film frantically trying to solve the mystery of Sadako’s videotape in order to appease her and lift her curse, as realized through a quest to uncover the secrets of her death and locate her corpse, and to subsequently provide her with proper burial rights. Yet in the final moments the protagonists learn that this quest has proved fruitless, as Sadako does not operate according to humanistic motivations. Despite the fact that Ryuji helped to exhume Sadako’s remains from the well, she erupts through his television screen and murders him in his living room, mechanistically enacting her curse — Ryuji may have attempted to honour her memory, but he did not copy her videotape and pass it on to another. Recalling Baudrilllard’s discussion of the “murderous capacity of images”, this twist entails the uncanny realization that the corpse of the ‘real’ girl can never be found and perhaps never really existed.

Sadako 3D further extends this centre-less device, offering not a horrifying glimpse of a Japan devoid of literal referents as in Ringu, but instead plunging audiences full-throttle into the abyss. The theme park aesthetics which dominate the film — and in fact overwhelm any coherent sense of character or plot — serve to enunciate this rejection of a discernible narrative nucleus. Like the dark rides featured in theme parks (indoor roller coasters/track-based rides which combine animatronics and audio-visual effects), Sadako 3D foregrounds the visceral 3D effects over the threadbare plot[47], which, like that of a dark ride, exists only to provide the movement from one spectacle to the next. The dark ride aesthetic is crystallized during the climactic scene, when a swarm of mutated Sadakos attack the central character. That there is now a multiplicity of Sadakos as opposed to a single character embellishes on a grand scale the suggestion that she is not grounded by a discernible core, and instead represents a heterogeneous process of viral reproduction— much like the franchise as a whole. This Sadako 2.0 is rendered through a combination of puppetry, stop-motion and computer graphics: she is a towering, rust-hued creature who bears down on her victims by pivoting back and forth on inverted frog-like legs (which also resemble metal A-frames) while emitting a repetitive metallic howl. The newly imagined Sadako thus fetishizes the jerky, recurrent movements of outdated theme park animatronics and their hydraulics. That this final showdown takes place in a huge abandoned building further evokes the aesthetics of spatial and technological decay epitomized by the abandoned theme park.

Figure 7: Sadako 2.0 as abandoned theme park attraction, Sadako 3D, 2013.

Figure 10. Sadako 2.0 as abandoned theme park attraction (Sadako 3D, 2012).

The film endeavours to employ its 3D effects to thrust viewers inside Sadako’s world through a theme park-esque overload of the sensorium. The opening scene positions the audience at the bottom of the well in which Sadako died as a man peers over the edge, a claustrophobic engagement of the senses which simultaneously entails a cognitive plunge into a web of associations with prior Ring texts, an effect enhanced by the lack of explanatory preamble.  As we watch from the bottom of the well, ‘Sadako’s’ corpse plummets down towards us — inciting the sensation of free-fall — before the camera angle shifts downwards to depict the body splashing into the well’s murky water amongst a floating pile of identical looking corpses (a shot which also signals to the audience that we have been positioned in amongst this pile of bodies). Angling upwards once more, the camera rapidly ascends towards the well’s opening, inciting a sense of vertigo enhanced by the 3D effects. Much of the film is constituted of rapidly edited sequences in which Sadako reaches out through screens ‘towards’ the viewer, either via her arms or her monstrously strong hair. The protagonist, Akane, is able to scream at a pitch and volume that breaks glass, a device which facilitates numerous scenes depicting shards of glass flying ominously towards the viewer, provoking sensory, instinctual processes of fear and avoidance. In addition, Akane’s ability to smash the screen through which Sadako emerges (with inconsistent results) also works to break down the illusion of ‘screen as border’: drawing back to the film’s suggestion that “everything is artificial”, it seems that the ‘artifice’ was that we ever used the screen to make a distinction.

The threat that this all-encompassing artificiality poses to our sensorium is entangled with Sadako’s deconstruction of linear temporal structures. A number of analyses of the Ring franchise assert that Sadako’s eerie power is constellated in her evocation of post-humanity[48], yet this suggests a progressive movement from one stage of human evolution to the next. I contend instead that Sadako is uncanny in powerfully subversive ways primarily because she is asynchronous: she is at once atavistic and futuristic — as exemplified by her appearance in Sadako 3D, formed using a mix of outmoded and ‘cutting-edge’ visual effects techniques— realigning temporal stages that are diametrically opposed on a linear continuum to become a heterogeneous simultaneity.  In some ways, Sadako represents in monstrous form the “Japanese Spirit” of the wakon-yosai formulation, ensuring that the technologies that signify Japan’s over-determined relationship with ‘Westernised’ ideologies of national progress become home to an irrepressible spectre redolent of Japan’s pre-modern past. In doing so Sadako makes circularity out of progress, as each new technology becomes the vessel for the same tensions between the archaic and the post-modern, rather than functioning as a sign of national advancement.

The uncanny affects of this temporal looping reverberate throughout Sadako 3D, in ways that mirror the spatial and sensorial geography of the theme park. Lukas explains that “in many contemporary theme parks the feeling of geographic disassociation is used to create thrill in the patron and generate profits in the company.”[49] Yet after visitors have traversed the theme park, propelled by the seemingly endless array of sensory delights, “in most cases this feeling is [revealed to be] illusionary since the patron soon discovers that she has been walking in a loop.”[50] This is ultimately the rather disorienting affect of Sadako 3D, which hints at an array of plot strands before ultimately diverting from almost all of them, leaving the audience spiralling aimlessly between a range of different characters as they approach their demise at the hands of Sadako. Instead of following a unitary linear narrative to its end point, the audience is caught in a visceral loop as each scene builds to an inevitable sensorial attack, usually enacted by Sadako’s image simultaneously puncturing both the diegetic screen on which it appears and the ‘real’ screen on which the audience watches the film, via the 3D protrusion of grasping arms and shattering glass. The film thus functions as Tom Gunning’s “cinema of attraction”, denoting “early cinema’s fascination with novelty and its foregrounding of the act of display”[51] over narrative and character development — a reinstatement of early cinematic techniques and priorities which evokes temporal looping on a grand scale, echoing the antiquated aesthetics of the cursed tape in Ringu. Yet in contrast to Ringu, in which Sadako’s tape is embedded within a relatively conventional horror narrative presented via coherent cinematic syntax, in Sadako 3D the audience is completely enfolded within this carnivalesque cinema of attraction (the attractions of which, paradoxically, are rendered through the film’s 3D effects, which constitute the most extensive use of current special effects technologies seen in the franchise to date).  Thus mirroring the mechanics of Sadako herself, the film folds both the diegetic narrative and broader trajectories of historical development back onto themselves, contorting linear time into a loop.

That Sadako 3D functions primarily as cinema of attraction is further reinforced by the novel marketing techniques accompanying the film’s release, ‘attractions’ which were just as central to the experience of Sadako 3D as the film itself. For the release of Sadako 3D, the cinema-space itself became akin to a theme park: for major screenings in large multiplexes, artificial wells were placed inside the cinema, fog effects were used throughout the film, certain cinema chairs would suddenly jolt or viewers would be ‘grabbed’ from beneath, and Velcro was placed on some armrests to give the effect that the viewers’ arms were being pulled by Sadako. In addition, at the climax when dozens of monstrous Sadako mutations attack the film’s protagonist onscreen, a horde of real-life “Sadakos” (people in costume) invaded the cinema.[52] Here, the audience’s participation and active performance of fear and pleasure becomes central to the experience, as in the theme park ride. The recently released Sadako 3D 2 endeavours to extend this theme park mode of embodied engagement for even those audiences who are not lucky enough to attend a special screening: the film is accompanied by a downloadable mobile phone application which viewers can activate during the film, which vibrates, shows clips and plays sound effects to coincide with certain moments in the film to invoke the affect that viewers are being ‘attacked’ by Sadako via their own cell phones. The promoters have even suggested that the mobile phone effects may not cease once the film has ended, implying that patrons will be subject to Sadako’s curse long after they ‘escape’ the theatre.[53]

Figure 8: Sadako Attacks! Promotional Image for Sadako 3D 2 and its companion mobile phone app, image from fear.net, 2013

Figure 11. Sadako Attacks! Promotional Image for Sadako 3D 2 and its companion mobile phone app.

Evidently, the ludic transgression of boundaries between ‘reality’ and ‘artificiality’ — and a concomitant collapse in linear models of temporal progress — has overtly become the theme of the Ring franchise, a preoccupation which is rendered with particular effectiveness because the viral proliferation of this fictional universe is ungrounded from any specific geographic space, to which the architectural theme park is bound. Lukas suggests that “to be able to deal with the contradictions of the artificial and the real … is an essence of understanding the nature of any theme park”,[54] and in their playful interfacing with the viewer’s sensorium, the latest additions to the Ring franchise draw forth and work through the deep cultural anxieties surrounding what has long been an unstable dichotomy in Japan. There is currently a new Sadako attraction at Sega Joypolis to accompany the release of Sadako 3D 2, in which participants walk through a haunted maze-like structure similar to that of 2012. Yet in this incarnation, participants take on an active role in the narrative, playing reporters who take photographs of certain events that occur within the attraction, constructing an ever more recursive droste effect through the layering of reality and artificiality.

Figure 9: Sadako’s ‘Hair-dog’ and ‘well juice’, images from Sony Joypolis, 2013

Figure 12. Sadako’s ‘Hair-dog’ and ‘well juice’, Sony Joypolis, 2013.

The theme park is also offering menu items to accompany the attraction, including the Sadako ‘hair-dog’ and Sadako’s ‘well-juice’, complete with a candy worm clinging to the straw. Now patrons can literally eat (artificial) components of Sadako’s (artificial) being, so that she can become incorporated within their own body. The gleeful approach to this collapse in boundaries between signification, artificiality and reality demonstrates the sense of pleasurable catharsis derived from this process. In the cultural theme park that is Sadako’s world, participants are offered the opportunity to fully acknowledge and play with the tensions which are usually submerged beneath conceptions of contemporary Japanese identity: to plunge into the deep well between authenticity and artifice with the eerie possibility that one may never again crawl back out for air.

Audio Visual Sources:

Poltergeist. DVD. Directed by Tobe Hooper. Atlanta: Turner Home Entertainment, 2000.

Rasen. DVD. Directed by Jôji Iida. California: DreamWorks Home Entertainment, 2007.

Rasen. Television Series. Directed by Yoshihiro Kitayama. Tokyo: Fuji TV, 1999.

The Ring. Blu-ray DVD. Directed by Gore Verbinski. California: Paramount, 2012.

Ring: Infinity. WonderSwan Videogame. Tokyo: Kadokawa Shoten, 2000.

Ring: Kanzenban. Television Series. Directed by Chisui Takigawa. Tokyo: Fuji Television, 1995.

The Ring: Terror’s Realm. Dreamcast Videogame. San Jose: Infogrames, 2000.

The Ring Two. DVD. Directed by Hideo Nakata. California: DreamWorks Home Entertainment, 2005.

The Ring Virus. DVD. Directed by Dong-bin Kim. San Francisco: Tai Seng, 2004.

Ringu. DVD. Directed by Hideo Nakata. Richmond, Victoria: Madman Entertainment, 2000.

Ringu 0: Bâsudei. DVD. Directed by Norio Tsuruta. California: DreamWorks Home Entertainment, 2007.

Ringu Anthology of Terror. DVD Box set. Directed by Hideo Nakata, Jôji Iida and Norio Tsuruta. California: DreamWorks/Universal Studios, 2005.

Ringu: Saishûshô. Television Series. Directed by Fukumoto Yoshito. Tokyo: Fuji TV, 1999.

Sadako 3D. Film. Directed by Tsutomu Hanabusa. Tokyo: Kadokawa Pictures, 2012.

Sadako 3D 2. Film. Directed by Tsutomu Hanabusa. Tokyo: Kadokawa Pictures, 2013.

References:

Balmain, Colette. Introduction to Japanese Horror Film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” In The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (Volume One), edited by Vincent B. Leitch, William E. Cain, Laura A. Finke, Barbara E. Johnson, John McGowan and Jeffrey J. Williams, 1732-1740. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Orders of Simulacra.” In Simulations, translated by Paul Foss, Paul Patton and Phillip Beitchman, 81-159.  New York: Semiotext(e), 1983.

Choi, Jinhee and Wada-Marciano, Mitsuya. Horror to the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema. Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009.

Doak, Kevin. Dreams of Difference: The Japan Romantic School and the Crisis of Modernity. California: University of California Press, 1994.

Eco, Umberto. Travels in Hyperreality. London: Pan Books, 1987.

Enns, Anthony. “The Horror of Media: Technology and Spirituality in the Ringu Films.” In The Scary Screen: Media Anxiety in the Ring, edited by Kristen Lacefield, 30-44. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2010.

Figal, Gerald. Civilization and Monsters: Spirits of Modernity in Meiji Japan. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2000.

Fletcher III, W. Miles and von Staden, Peter W. “Epilogue: retrospect and prospects: the significance of the ‘lost decades’ in Japan.” Asia Pacific Business Review. 18 (2): April 2012. 275-279.

Gilman, Theodore J. No Miracles Here: Fighting Urban Decline in Japan and the United States. New York: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Gunning, Tom. “‘Now you see it, now you don’t: the temporality of the cinema of attractions.” Velvet Light Trap Fall: 1993. 3-26.

Jackson, Kimberly. “Techno-Human Infancy in Gore Verbinski’s The Ring.” In The Scary Screen: Media Anxiety in the Ring, edited by Kristen Lacefield,  161-175. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2010.

Jeffers, Gene. “Global Attractions Attendance Report”. Burbank, CA: Themed Entertainment Association, 2012.

Kinoshita, Chika. “The Mummy Complex: Kurosawa’s Loft and J-Horror.” In Horror to the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema, edited by Jinhee Choi and Mitsuya Wada-Marciano, 103-123.  Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009.

Lacefield, Kristen. The Scary Screen: Media Anxiety in the Ring. Surrey: Ashgate Publishing Ltd., 2010.

Lukas, Scott A. Theme Park. London: Reaktion Books, 2008.

McRoy, Jay. Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Film. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008.

Miyao, Daisuke. The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Film. North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2013.

Najita, Tetsuo. Visions of Virtue in Tokugawa Japan. Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1987.

Napier, Susan. The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature. London: Routledge, 1996.

Ndalianis, Angela. The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses. North Carolina: McFarland, 2012.

Ndalianis, Angela. Neo-Baroque Aesthetics in Contemporary Entertainment. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005.

Phu, Thy. “Horrifying adaptations: Ringu, The Ring, and the cultural contexts of copying.” Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance 3, no 1 (2010): 43-58.

Richie, Donald. “The ‘Real’ Disneyland.” In The Donald Richie Reader: 50 Years of Writing On Japan, edited by Arturo Silva, 169-173.  Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2001.

Suzuki, Koji. Ring. Translated by Robert B. Rohmer and Glynne Walley. New York: Vertical Inc., 2004.

Suzuki, Koji. S. Tokyo: Kadokawa Corporation, 2012.

Suzuki, Koji. Loop. Translated by Glynne Walley. New York: Vertical Inc., 2006.

Tateishi, Ramie. “The Japanese Horror Film Series: Ring and Eko Eko Azarak.” In Fear without Frontiers: Horror Cinema Across the Globe, edited by Steven Jay Schneider, 295-305. Surrey: FAB Press, 2003.

The Tokyo Times. “Sadako 3D 2 will use smartphone app to scare audiences.” The Tokyo Times, http://www.tokyotimes.com/2013/sadako-3d-2-will-use-smartphone-app-to-scare-cinema-audience/ (accessed 30 October, 2013).

Wee, Valerie. Japanese Horror Films and their American Remakes. London: Routledge, 2013.

White, Eric. “Case Study: Nakata Hideo’s Ringu and Ringu 2.” In Japanese Horror Cinema, edited by Jay McRoy, 38-51. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006.

Yu, Eric K.W. “A Traditional Vengeful Ghost or the Machine in the Ghost? Narrative Dynamic, Horror Effects and the Posthuman in Ringu.” In Fear Itself: Reasoning the Unreasonable, edited by Stephen Hessel and Michele Huppert, 109-123. New York: Rodopi, 2009.

Notes:

[1] Ringu, DVD. Directed by Hideo Nakata (Japan: Omega Project, 1998).

[2] For the sake of clarity, I will refer to the original film throughout as ‘Ringu’, and the franchise as a whole as ‘Ring’. In fact the title ‘Ringu’ is somewhat problematic as it was not the original translation given to the film’s title (which was initially simply ‘Ring’). The literal Romanization ‘Ringu’ came in to use to differentiate Nakata’s film from the American remake.

[3] See for instance Colette Balmain, Introduction to Japanese Horror Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univeristy Press, 2008), Kristen Lacefield, The Scary Screen: Media Anxiety in the Ring (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing 2010), Jinhee Choi and Mitsuya Wada-Marciano, Horror to the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema, (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009), Jay McRoy, Nightmare Japan: Contemporary Japanese Horror Cinema (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2008), Thy Phu “Horrifying Adaptations: Ringu, The Ring and the cultural contexts of copying” Journal of Adaptation in Film and Performance 3 (1) (2010) and Valerie Wee, Japanese Horror Films and their American Remakes (London: Routledge, 2013).

[4] The Ring, DVD. Directed by Gore Verbinski (USA: DreamWorks, 2001).

[5] Sadako 3D, Film. Directed by Tsutomu Hanabusa (Japan: Kadokawa Pictures, 2012).

[6] Sadako 3D 2, Film. Directed by Tsutomu Hanabusa (Japan: Kadokawa Pictures, 2013).

[7] Ring’s strong cultural currency in Japan can also be understood through Ringu’s reconfiguration of some of the most famous Japanese kaidan (or ghost folk tales) about the vengeful female ghost, most markedly Banchō Sarayashiki , in which a young woman, thrown into a well by her Samurai master and left to die, returns to haunt him from her watery sepulchre.

[8]  Anthony Enns, “The Horror of Media: Technology and Spirituality in the Ringu Films,” in The Scary Screen: Media Anxiety in the Ring, ed. Kristen Lacefield (Surrey: Ashgate Publishing, 2010), 32.

[9] In fact, unlike the Hollywood model, it is very common in Japan for film franchises to move between television and cinema. Attendance of domestic films at the cinema in Japan remains relatively low, especially when considering that Japanese movie theatres are among the worlds most expensive. The vastly reduced production costs and ability for rapid development ensure that made-for-television films are common and popular; successful ones often become feature films, either in the form of sequels or as remakes, before continuing their narratives on television once more. Sometimes, the franchise is simultaneously continued on both television and film, forming two parallel diegetic universes in the same franchise. This was the case with another popular J-horror franchise, Ju-on (Takashi Shimizu, 1998-2009).

[10] At the time of writing, Sadako 3D 2 has recently been released in Japan.

[11] Chika Kinoshita, “The Mummy Complex: Kurosawa’s Loft and J-Horror,” in Horror To the Extreme: Changing Boundaries in Asian Cinema, ed. Jinhee Choi and Mitsuya Wada-Marciano (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2009), 105.

[12] Phu, “Horrifying adaptations”, 55.

[13] Jean Baudrillard, “The Orders of Simulacra”, in Simulations (New York: Semiotext(e), 1983), 117.

[14] Anthony Enns, “The Horror of Media”, 40.

[15] Terms like ‘spectator’ expose the entrenched ocular bias in film studies — an imbalance which Ndalianis’ work seeks to overcome — but for the sake of simplicity I will use the common terms ‘spectator’ and ‘viewer’ in reference to audience members, as an interrogation of such terminology is beyond the scope and focus of this article.

[16] Angela Ndalianis, The Horror Sensorium: Media and the Senses (North Carolina: McFarland, 2012), 30.

[17] Ibid, 3.

[18] Scott A. Lukas, Theme Park (London: Reaktion Books, 2008), 217.

[19] Kimberly Jackson, “Techno-Human Infancy in Gore Verbinski’s The Ring” in The Scary Screen, 171.

[20] In what is becoming a tradition, Sadako has now thrown the first pitch at a number of baseball games in Japan. In fact, in this case four Sadako’s were involved in the first pitch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7Jas2gEeb0

[21] Ndalianis, Horror Sensorium, 17.

[22] Susan Napier, The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature (London: Routledge, 1996), 144.

[23] Kevin Doak, Dreams of Difference: The Japan Romantic School and the Crisis of Modernity (California: University of California Press, 1994), 295.

[24] Gerald Figal, Civilization and Monsters: Spirits of Modernity in Meiji Japan (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2000).

[25] Ramie Tateishi, “The Japanese Horror Film Series: Ring and Eko Eko Azarak” in Fear without Frontiers: Horror Cinema Across the Globe, ed. Steven Jay Schneider, (Surrey: FAB Press, 2003), 296.

[26] Napier, The Fantastic, 2.

[27] Phu, Horrifying Adaptations, 53.

[28] See Daisuke Miyao’s The Aesthetics of Shadow: Lighting and Japanese Cinema (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2013), for a discussion of the development of Japanese film lighting techniques. Miyao points out that early film techniques were much indebted to the flat aesthetic of Kabuki theatre. In fact, as Miayo explains, there was much resistance in the early decades of the Japanese film industry to three point Hollywood lighting techniques, so integral was this ‘flat’ aesthetic to ideas of Japanese cultural authenticity.

[29] While the DVD was also technically ‘invented’ in Japan, its development was strictly managed by a number of international conglomerates such as Panasonic, Time Warner, and Phillips.

[30] In fact, this term is often revised to be “the two lost decades”, as Japan struggles to overcome this period of economic stagnation.

[31] Miles W. Fletcher III and Peter W. von Staden, “Epilogue: retrospect and prospects: the significance of the ‘lost decades’ in Japan” Asia Pacific Business Review 18, no 2 (2012).

[32] Lukas, Theme Park, 9.

[33] Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra” in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch and William E. Cain, (New York City: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012), 1741.

[34] Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality, (London: Pan Books, 1987), 7.

[35] Ibid, 7

[36] Tetsuo Najita, Visions of Virtue in Tokugawa Japan (Hawaii: University of Hawaii Press, 1987), 11.

[37] See Ndalianis’ Neo-Baroque Aesthetics in Contemporary Entertainment (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005) for a discussion of the continuities between the ideo-aesthetics of Baroque art and contemporary mediascapes, in which Ndalianis argues that the current predilection for seriality and reflexivity and the ways in which such modes engender spectator immersion reflect the poly-centric forms of the Baroque period.

[38] Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra”, 1736.

[39] Ibid, 1739.

[40] Theodore J. Gilman, No Miracles Here: Fighting Urban Decline in Japan and the United States (New York: State University of New York Press, 2001), 79.

[41] Gene Jeffers (Ed.) Global Attractions Attendance Report (Burbank, CA: Themed Entertainment Association, 2012), 16-17.

[42] Baudrillard, The Precession of Simulacra, 1741.

[43] Donald Richie, “The ‘Real’ Disneyland” in The Donald Richie Reader: 50 Years of Writing On Japan, ed. Arturo Silva (Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 2001), 169.

[44] Ibid, 1739.

[45] Ibid, 1735.

[46] In the first order of simulation, representations function as place-markers for the real, having a clear and direct relationship with the reality that they depict and being inferior to the richness of the real. In the second order of simulation, signs and images do not point directly to the real that they signify (as there is a web of simulations and copies), but do signal the existence of an abstruse reality which is not quite encapsulated by the representation.

[47] The rather vague and convoluted plot tells of an artist’s attempt to ‘resurrect’ Sadako’s curse (what he refers to as the “resurrection of S”). He orchestrates his own cursed video and throws a number of long-haired women in white gowns into the well in which Sadako died: a process which raises a horde of mutated Sadakos. At the end of the film, an image of the ‘original’ Sadako emerges from one of the characters’ cell phone screens and enters the body of Akane, the central character. Yet, as the words “everything is artificial” once again overlay the final scene, it is suggested that this image of Sadako (which appears different both from the creature who emerges through optical media screens throughout the film and the ‘mutated’ Sadakos) is yet another version of the intangible creature that is “S”: in entering Akane’s body yet another ‘copy’ has been created of which there is no traceable original.

[48] See Enns, The Horror of Media; Eric White, “Case Study: Nakata Hideo’s Ringu and Ringu 2” in Japanese Horror Cinema, ed. Jay McRoy (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006) and Eric Yu, “A Traditonal Vengeful Ghost or the Machine in the Ghost? Narrative Dynamic, Horror Effects and the Posthuman in Ringu” in Fear Itself: Reasoning the Unreasonable, ed. Stephen Hessel and Michele Huppert (New York: Rodopi, 2009).

[49] Lukas, Theme Park, 104.

[50] Ibid, 104.

[51] Tom Gunning, “‘Now you see it, now you don’t’: the temporality of the cinema of attractions”” Velvet Light Trap Fall 1993, 3 (1993).

[52] Such techniques echo the playful gimmicks used by William Castle, such as ‘Emergo’ during House on Haunted Hill (1959) during which glowing, plastic skeletons floated above the audience, the “fright break” during Homicidal (1961) and ‘Percepto’, seats wired with vibration devices, in The Tingler (1959).

[53] The Tokyo Times, “Sadako 3D 2 will use smartphone app to scare audiences”, The Tokyo Times, http://www.tokyotimes.com/2013/sadako-3d-2-will-use-smartphone-app-to-scare-cinema-audience/ (accessed 30 October, 2013).

[54] Lukas, Theme Park, 22.

Bio: Jessica Balanzategui is a doctoral candidate at The University of Melbourne, Australia. She has taught film, literature and media studies at James Cook University and The University of Melbourne. Jessica’s doctoral thesis explores the construction of uncanny child characters in a recent assemblage of transnational horror films from America, Spain and Japan. She has published work on the uncanny child, madness and asylums in the horror film in refereed journals such as Etropic and Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media, as well as a number of soon to be released edited collections, and reviews for Media International Australia. She recently co-edited the special issue of Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media titled “Transmedia Horror”.

Jodi Arias in the Public Sphere: Rhetorics of Horror and the Monstrous Feminine – Elizabeth Lowry

Introduction

The Jodi Arias Trial has been described as one of the most peculiar and salacious murder trials in American history.[1] In May 2013, Arias, a 32 year-old woman, was found guilty of murdering her ex-boyfriend, Travis Alexander in Mesa, Arizona on June 4th 2008. Alexander, a Mormon motivational speaker, was discovered to have been stabbed between twenty-seven and thirty times and had also been shot in the head. In the five years that elapsed between the murder and the trial, the word “monster” surfaced in a variety of contexts. To begin with, Arias claimed that “monsters” had broken into Alexander’s apartment and killed him in front of her. Later, Arias claimed that Alexander himself had been the monster–more specifically, a “sex monster,” whom Arias had been forced to kill in self-defense. Next, as more sordid details of the trial came to light, the popular press seized on classic horror conventions to frame the Arias narrative. Finally, the jury deemed Arias herself to be the monster–and therefore eligible for the death penalty.

This paper situates the Jodi Arias Trial within an American cultural tradition of monster-making and the role of social media and public participation in twenty-first century news reporting. I argue that the public construction of Arias as a monster was accomplished primarily by drawing on horror conventions and rhetorical tropes in order to exploit what Barbara Creed refers to as “monstrous feminine” archetypes. According to Creed, the “monstrous feminine” is identifiable via her association with the abject, her identity as a castrator and “her mothering and reproductive functions.”[2] We are cued to relate far differently to the “monstrous feminine” than we are to a “monster.” The monstrous feminine is not merely the female counterpart of a male monster. She is horrifying in a more gendered way: “she is defined in terms of her sexuality. The phrase ‘monstrous-feminine’ emphasizes the importance of gender in the construction of her monstrosity.”[3] While the monstrous feminine is associated with the same sick and violent acts that we attribute to a monster, the monstrous female is the soul of duplicitousness and a skilled seductress—qualities that evoke all the more fear and loathing on the part of her victims. With this in mind, I offer an analysis of how the collective imagination is stimulated by a melding of highly affective genres. Why was it necessary for Arias to be constructed as a monster? What social need does the monster—particularly the female monster—address? What was the rhetorical impact of circulating this specific trial narrative—and what distinguishes this narrative from others of its ilk? What can the Jodi Arias trial tell us about the gendering of a monster and where the “monstrous feminine” belongs in the millennial cultural imaginary? Finally, what does a reliance on horror archetypes combined with Oedipal constructions of truth reveal about American cultural attitudes toward the subjectivity of violent criminals?

The Jodi Arias trial began on January 2nd, 2013 in Phoenix, Arizona—but audiences were already familiar with Arias. By then, she had been the subject of a press conference shortly after her arrest in 2008, and, more significantly a documentary entitled “Jodi Arias: In Her Own Words” aired in 2009 by CBS’s 48 hours. While CBS and NBC produced periodic documentary episodes on the Jodi Arias saga to keep the public apprised of new developments in the case, the most comprehensive coverage of the day-to-day aspects of Arias’s five-month trial was covered primarily by HLN. Ever since her arrest in July 2008, Arias’s lawyers had dissuaded her from providing television interviews, however, she evidently paid them no heed. On September 24th, 2008, four months after Travis Alexander’s murder, Arias appeared on camera for a jailhouse interview with Inside Edition. She then began a relationship with the producers of CBS’s 48 Hours that would eventually become the 2009 “In Her Own Words.” [4] This initial 48 Hours episode, hosted by Maureen Maher, attempts to suspend disbelief—and to consider the possibility that Arias might be innocent. In this interview, Arias “admitted that she was present when he was murdered, but she said that his death occurred during a home invasion…the intruders, whom she described as a man and a women dressed in black were armed with a knife and a gun. At one point, she said, the man pointed the gun at her but she was miraculously spared.”[5]

Figure 1: Jodi Arias in the CBS program “48 Hours”, 2008.

Figure 1. Jodi Arias in the CBS program “48 Hours”, 2008.

In August 2011, Arias admitted that she had murdered Alexander, but claimed that she had acted in self-defense. This was confirmed by Angela Arias, Arias’s younger sister, who, in a response to a Huffington Post query, said that while Arias had lied about the home invasion, she did so because of her love for Alexander: “She was so in love with that man she did not want people to know what a monster he really was…My sister is innocent of the crime they are accusing her of…She did kill Travis, but it was not in cold blood, it was not for revenge, it was because she was afraid for her life.”[6]

The jury selection for the Arias trial began on December 10th, 2012. Ten days later, twelve jurors and six alternates were sworn in.[7] On January 2nd, 2013 the trial began. On January 19th, 48 Hours aired “Picture Perfect” and on March 1st, 2013 NBC’s Dateline aired “Along Came Jodi.” In May 2013, when the necessary evidence for a conviction had emerged, and Arias’s guilt was confirmed, 48 Hours produced a final episode entitled “Unraveling the Lies of Jodi Arias,” which offered a retrospective of the trial and various earlier interviews with Arias. That same month, NBC’s Dateline also aired an episode providing a retrospective and commentary on the trial entitled “Obsession: The Jodi Arias Story.”

Body Genres

Through media coverage of this trial, we see the ways in which mythic and psychoanalytic underpinnings of fear, lust, and self-identification shape how news is produced and consumed. As information about the Arias trial circulates from one media outlet to another, we see a melding of genres—horror, whodunit, erotica and reality tv—but arguably, the most prevalent of these genres is a blend of erotica and horror. This particular combination bears a significant influence over the representation of a female criminal, especially if she is young and attractive. Both erotica and horror are deeply affective genres provoking a physiological response in audiences. Throughout the Arias trial, use of these “body genres”[8] worked in concert to foment a sense of intrigue, while personal investment in the trial was galvanized by opportunities to participate in online chats and opinion polls sponsored by major news networks. Over the course of the trial, opinion polls revealed what appeared to be a widespread consensus that Arias deserved the death penalty. However, this consensus was coupled with the peculiar irony of Arias’s growing celebrity: she had a friend open a Twitter account on her behalf and began to sell her pencil drawings and other items over eBay to enthusiastic buyers. From there, the trial proceedings saw unprecedented media hype and merchandising, including a made for tv movie,[9] mass-market publications on the trial[10] and the production of Jodi Arias T-shirts and stickers. Meanwhile droves of people lined up outside the Maricopa County courthouse in Phoenix hoping to get a ringside seat.

Public discourse on various elements of the Arias narrative brought to light during the trial were shaped by allusions to classic horror films of the mid to late twentieth century. The fact that Alexander was stabbed to death in the shower draws numerous comparisons to the film Psycho; the iconic “shower scene” itself reenacted by HLN’s “After Dark” hosts who built a replica of the crime scene in their television studio.[11] In addition to Psycho, the story of Arias and Alexander’s relationship is frequently compared to the plot of the 1987 thriller Fatal Attraction, in which a sociopathic woman attempts to destroy the family-life of a man with whom she has had an affair. A forensic psychiatrist[12] and a Phoenix defense attorney compare Arias to Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction—ostensibly in an effort to help the public better understand “who” Arias is.[13] These comparisons are made repeatedly by Alexander’s friends and reporters, shaping the representation and interpretation of Arias and Alexander’s ill-fated affair. Interestingly, Arias herself also draws on the narrative conventions of a thriller or horror film. In an attempt to argue for her own innocence, she casts herself in the role of Carol Clover’s iconic “Final Girl.” An archetype that Clover popularized in her analysis of femininity in horror films, the Final Girl is sexually pure—sometimes a tomboy—who, after everyone else has been killed, is left to fight the monster alone. She, the Final Girl, is the character that the audience ends up rooting for.[14]

As stipulated earlier, Arias offers three different versions detailing how Alexander came to be found dead in his shower. In the first version of the story, Arias claims that she had no idea that Alexander was dead and that she had been nowhere near his home. In the second version of the story, once photographic evidence had established that she had indeed been at the crime scene, Arias describes a home invasion, detailing how a man and woman had come into Alexander’s home, stabbed Alexander and then tried to shoot Arias, who, fearing for her life, took off running. In the third “official” version of the story, that which was recounted in court, Arias speaks of how Alexander—enraged that Arias had dropped his new camera while she was taking nude photographs of him in the shower—had “body-slammed” her to the bathroom floor and that, fearing for her life, she shot him in the head.[15] By the time this narrative was delivered from the stand in 2013, Arias had adopted a plainer look—one that favored drab colors, large glasses, and no make-up. Adopting the beleaguered, de-sexualized ethos of the “Final Girl,” Arias describes how Alexander—even with a bullet in his head—kept coming at her, which was why she allegedly had no choice but to stab him in self-defense. This, of course, is reminiscent of the classic horror film trope where the monster—believed to be dead—rises up, is again a threat, and must be “killed” once and for all.

Figure 2: Arias in court. Image from metrous.com, 2013.

Figure 2. Arias in court, metrous.com, 2013.

A Cautionary Tale

Monsters inspire fear in order to deter us from inappropriate behavior. In this sense, the construction of Jodi Arias as a monster, particularly as the “monstrous feminine,” serves to warn the public about the dangers of giving in to lust; the perils of engaging in promiscuous sexual behavior. Alexander is unable to resist Arias. He allows lust to get the better of him, and so, as a result, his sexual indiscretions kill him when he becomes the victim of a she-demon.

As mentioned earlier, Arias is compared to Glenn Close’s character in Fatal Attraction—a woman who would destroy her sexual partner rather than see him with someone else. Numerous cultural stereotypes support the narrative of the evil seductress luring a more or less “innocent” man to his death. Evoking the vagina dentata, Arias acts as a warning to men who may consider engaging in illicit sexual activity, just as Fatal Attraction famously became a “parable about the dangers of indulging in unsafe sex”[16] Tales such as these, evoking archetypes of the succubus and the siren, serve to maintain social purity by promising punishment to those who succumb to sexual urges. Fatal Attraction is particularly potent in this regard because of its depiction of a perceived “attack” on the sanctity of the family unit; the desecration of family values. It is precisely this issue that comes into play in the Arias trial, which at first seems surprising because neither Alexander nor Arias is married, and neither has children. What matters, however, was that—before his death—Alexander had professed himself to be a devout Mormon and an aspiring family man. Apparently an advocate for conservative family values, Alexander had taken a vow of chastity and was actively looking for a wife with whom to start a family.[17] Needless to say, Alexander did not consider Arias to be appropriate for marriage—and was conscious of the fact that his relationship with her could be construed as a betrayal both of the conservative ideology he represented and of his potential “family.” In short, Arias was cast as representing a similar threat to American family values as Glenn Close’s character had. The burden of responsibility for Alexander’s sexual transgressions is placed on Arias, although there is plenty of evidence that Alexander’s behavior was not beyond reproach.

Although the Fatal Attraction analogy played a significant role in the Alexander/Arias narrative, audiences of the trial (as evidenced by bloggers and media pundits) seemed to be equally inspired by connections made between the murder case and the movie Psycho. For instance, NBC’s Dateline documentary “Along Came Jodi” summarizes Part 3 of the documentary thus: “Travis Alexander, in a scene reminiscent of the Alfred Hitchcock movie Psycho is found dead in his shower. Everyone suspects Jodi Arias.”[18] Further, a blogger from Crime and Court News contended that Arias had actually intended for parallels to be made between the shower scene in Psycho and Alexander’s killing.[19] The blog included a visual component that juxtaposed images of Janet Leigh in the shower in the film Psycho with photos—taken by Jodi Arias—of Travis Alexander in the shower.[20]  Had Arias staged this murder as an homage to Hitchcock?

Figure 3: Visual comparison between Arias’ photographs of Alexander and the shower scene from Psycho, Crime and Courts News, 2013

Figure 3. Visual comparison between Arias’ photographs of Alexander and the shower scene from Psycho, Crime and Courts News, 2013.

Associating Arias with the deranged Norman Bates who dresses like a woman (more specifically his mother) in order to stab his prey seems to add a new dimension to the Arias story—that of gender indeterminacy, or what Clover refers to as the “phallic female”–that is, when a woman takes up a knife or a phallic object, she becomes masculinized in the eyes of the viewer.[21] Hitchcock adds a twist to the Freudian “phallic female” with the suggestion that by dressing as a woman and using a butcher knife as a phallus, Bates is attempting to reclaim the masculinity so denigrated by his monstrous-feminine mother. With these references to Psycho and Fatal Attraction, Arias is portrayed at once as an overbearing mother-figure and as the stalker ex-mistress who frequently shows up unannounced at Alexander’s home, even crawling into the house through a dog-door when she has no access to keys. As the suffocating emasculating “mother,” Arias allegedly cleaned Alexander’s home, read his cellphone messages, hacked into his Facebook account and “snooped” through his possessions. Alexander’s friends describe how, like a child attempting to claim its independence, Alexander repeatedly tries to break away from Arias, but she will not let him go; a mother failing to give her child the freedom he needs—or, as Travis’s friends put it—a stalker.[22]

In Freudian terms, the idea of a female picking up a knife and stabbing a man with it often plays out in a rape revenge fantasy—metaphorically, she is raping him in return by appropriating the phallic power of the male. But Creed challenges Freud’s theory that men are afraid of women because women are “castrated.” Instead, she proposes that men are afraid of women whom they see as castrators.[23] As such, Creed discusses two types of woman in horror films: the phallic woman and the castrator. The phallic woman penetrates a man’s flesh by wielding a weapon, whereas the castrator—who eliminates his manhood altogether–is represented by the vagina dentata. But although the vagina dentata emblematizes the notion of the monstrous feminine, Creed points out that the female as castrator can often come across as being somewhat sympathetic because she is taking revenge against a man who has wronged her or sexually humiliated her—just as Arias claimed to have felt wronged at the hands of Alexander.[24] But while Creed’s 2002 work on the concept of “monstrous feminine” would likely cast Arias—the female slasher—as being a castrator, Clover’s older work of the 1970s prefers to conceive of the female slasher as being phallicized—that is, temporarily relegated to a state of sexual ambiguity. Ultimately, both archetypes are at work in portrayals of Arias. Audiences who interpret Arias as a castrator might see her in a somewhat sympathetic light, believing her to be abused. However, audiences who do not believe that Arias was abused see her as unattractively masculine—the knife being a means by which to assault the vulnerable male. These unconscious hints at gender indeterminacy and the feminizing and subjugation of Alexander, further lend to the notion of duality—the demonic Other that is Jodi Arias.

Our Monsters, Ourselves

The sensational documentary films aired by 48 Hours and Dateline combined with the increasing role of social media platforms inviting viewers to chat and share opinions set the reality show tenor for the Arias Trial. The trial reporting introduced Alexander’s friends and family—all of whom seemed so ordinary that viewers could not help but identify with them. However, in treating Arias’s legal proceedings like a reality show, the public seemed to have stopped thinking of Arias or her family as “real” people. Thus arises a paradox inherent to the reality tv genre: the phenomenon of both identifying with the protagonists of reality tv because they are “real” but somehow feeling that their circumstances or life experiences are distinctly “unreal.”

For decades, parents have complained about children being influenced by depictions of violence in genres that are recognized as exclusively fictional. The suasive power of those fictions has long been considered to be dangerously potent. Creed acknowledges this, asserting that “movies” influence the viewer in a more insidious fashion than reality tv.  According to Creed, “intimate events” in “movies” as such, “unfold in a context which hides its modes of production and pretends that the spectator is viewing unmediated reality.”[25] On the other hand, reality tv makes no such pretense since “the contestants have agreed to put themselves on display in a live context.”[26] In other words, since reality tv does not hide its modes of production it does not trick the viewer into thinking he/she is watching unmediated reality. The viewer can still tell fact from fiction—he/she knows that in a movie, reality is mediated by actors and producers. In other words, reality tv can be considered more authentic simply because it admits to its own artifice. But Shohini Chaudhuri’s interpretation of feminist film theorist Claire Johnston’s work suggests that Johnston would challenge Creed’s perspective by asserting that the very fact that reality tv does admit to its own artifice actually makes it less authentic, because not all of its artifice is made transparent.[27]  Therefore, to Johnston, reality tv has more insidious suasive power than a movie because it tricks us into thinking we are experiencing immediacy when we are not. Yet, the Arias trial is complex enough in terms of its blended genre conventions that neither Johnston nor Creed’s theories seem to hold up in its context. Indeed, reality tv is insidious because it tricks us into thinking we are experiencing something “real,” but that is far from being the problem—the problem is how we actually process and internalize what we see. Evidently even our enjoyment of the “real” does not actually play out as being “real” in the cultural imaginary. Instead, it becomes a spectacle that causes people to forget that others can be deeply affected by their actions. However, it could be argued that the lack of a sense of reality during the trial had to do less with reality tv than with the initial presentation of a stylized murder narrative. Because the Arias story had already been so deeply marked by horror conventions, its rebranding as reality television caused profound cultural confusion.

The confusion seemed to extend to public responses to the trial proceedings which  revealed that due process is unimportant to a culture in which the line between reality and unreality is so easily blurred.  During this time, it seemed that the viewing public had entirely forgotten that this trial was a matter of life and death. In online chatrooms and commentaries on social media platforms such as Facebook, Arias’s defense lawyer, Kirk Nurmi, was excoriated for doing his job: honoring Arias’s right to a trial. Participants in online chats and viewer commentaries on the websites of major news outlets complained bitterly about Nurmi. For instance, HLN viewers complained that the soft-spoken, overweight Nurmi was “boring” and that he looked like a “slob.”[28] Instead of critiquing the very real arguments about justice—not only for Alexander, but also for Arias—presented in the trial, viewers critiqued what they felt to be failures of the entertainment industry: Nurmi was supposed to be good-looking and entertaining. He was not supposed to speak in Arias’s defense because as far as public opinion was concerned, Arias had already qualified for execution.

In this regard, “Obsession” the Dateline episode of May 10th, 2013, is significant because it provides more reflective coverage on the public’s reaction to the “Jodi Show” than other major news outlets. The trial is described as a “uniquely twenty-first century event” in terms of its attraction to audiences “hooked on the action” and emphasizes the trial’s reality-show style appeal.[29] This Dateline episode refers to “trial tourists”—that is, people from other states flying into Phoenix to try to get a seat in court. Dateline also points out that this type of public interest is problematic. Treating the trial it as if it were as “unreal” as a reality show, meant a heavily biased jury—who had not been sequestered—and defense lawyers who apparently feared for their lives. Equally problematic was the fact that the prosecuting attorney, Juan Martinez, was signing autographs and posing for pictures outside of the courthouse. Michael Kiefer, an Arizona Republic reporter interviewed on site expressed dismay that people were reacting to an event this serious in such a frivolous manner: “This is not Jersey Shore. This is life and death. This is a death penalty case.”[30] But nobody seemed particularly concerned with the provision of a fair trial. The Arias case had given the public an opportunity to express its bloodlust: The condemnation of Arias’s violence had evidently given rise to a socially acceptable and legally sanctioned violence of its own.

A Quest for Truth

The persistence and pervasiveness of social media helped the American public to participate minute by minute in a heavily dramatized trial ultimately cast as a quest for “Truth.” Unified toward this ostensibly noble end, the public followed Juan Martinez’s cross-examination intently, trying to understand who Jodi Arias really was. In this manner, trial-addicted viewers found online affinity groups either for or against (although the majority was clearly for) the death penalty. A consensus of sorts was constructed by media outlets such as HLN and CNN conveying a sense that the American people had unified in order to uncover the “truth” and participate in the ritual slaying of a monster.

When media outlets begin to represent Arias as being a complex character, that complexity is quickly undermined by resorting to a strictly Manichean worldview. For example, Dateline’s “Along Came Jodi” shows an image of Arias wearing red while posing against an acid green background. The picture is replicated multiple times to signal multiple personality disorder. And later, pictures of Arias in her various avatars (blonde bombshell, domestic violence victim, mousy librarian) are presented along with a voiceover alerting viewers to “the many faces of Jodi Arias.”[31]However, the “many faces” are not meant to show complexity, they are meant to inspire fear; to demonstrate that Arias’s negative traits are legion and that her capacity for trickery is unlimited. The possibility that there might be a “good” Arias among these avatars becomes irrelevant when her representation will ultimately be reduced to a good/evil binary. This sense of duality is seen in sharp relief when viewers are repeatedly shown old pictures of Arias.  The difference is stark. The pre-murder Arias had platinum blonde hair, wore makeup and contact lenses and sexy brightly colored clothing. The accused pre-trial Arias transitioned into a more modest brunette; still soft-spoken, pretty, and concerned with grooming and makeup. This change in Arias’s image was used to suggest that she was “hiding” something[32] –an allegation that grew when the Arias on trial later seemed to have changed dramatically even from her transition phase; wearing large unfashionable glasses, no makeup, and drab colors. Newscasters drew frequent attention to this, calling Arias’s new look that of the “mousy librarian.”[33] Now, seemingly all too aware of her folly in having sought the spotlight, Arias appears to shrink from the public eye lamenting that details of her sex life with Alexander have gone public. But when the narrator of Dateline’s “Obsession” asks: “Who was she?” it doesn’t seem as if the documentarians themselves had much doubt as to who Arias was. Although both CBS and NBC aired documentary episodes attempting to attest to Arias’s multiplicity, their efforts were disingenuous. This disingenuousness comes to light in a Facebook chat that invites viewers to weigh in on whether or not they believe the defense’s version of Arias’s story. Dateline muses over Arias’s transformation from “sexy wannabe photographer to Plain Jane killer.”[34] This concept is rhetorically problematic. Why could Arias not have been both—or why was she necessarily either? How would one category have precluded her from the other?  How, could a “sexy wannabe photographer” be pitted as a logical antithesis to being a killer? This rhetoric is evidence of the degree to which duality plays a role in the construction of the monstrous feminine, beginning with the archetype of Eve in the Garden of Eden. Eve, characterized both as being easily tempted and as a temptress herself, leads Adam into sin. During the trial, this feminine duplicity is remarked upon repeatedly—as are Arias’s good looks. How could an attractive person actually be a killer?[35] Indeed, Dateline’s labels—“sexy wannabe photographer” and “plain Jane killer”—foments the idea that we cannot quite conceive of killers as being attractive people. Therefore, it is possible that Arias actually lost credibility by eschewing the blonde bombshell look in favor of the librarian. On the other hand, however, perhaps it was a savvy rhetorical tactic. Unattractive female murderers such as Aileen Wournos are merely female monsters—and people feel sorry for them—whereas attractive women who commit murder are branded as siren-like; somehow supernatural. This element of the uncanny incites us to recognize these women as being as excessively evil as they are excessively feminine.

Figure 4: Pre-murder photograph of Arias. Image from liberallylean.com, 2013

Figure 4. Pre-murder photograph of Arias, liberallylean.com, 2013.

In his article “The Cultural Biography of Things,” Igor Kopytoff speaks of the analogous relationship between how people and things are constructed within a culture. In particular, he compares the difference between these constructions within a “small-scale” society versus a “complex” society.[36] In a small-scale society “a person’s social identities are relatively stable and changes in them are normally conditioned more by cultural rules than by biographical idiosyncrasies,” while a complex society is radically different by virtue of the fact that “a person’s social identities are not only numerous but often conflicting and there is no clear hierarchy of loyalties that makes one identity dominant over the others. Here, the drama of personal biographies has become…the drama of identities—of their clashes, of the impossibility of choosing between them…”[37] Taking Kopytoff’s theory of identity into account, I argue that during this trial, major television networks “mediated” by providing signals to help the viewing public choose between possible identities for Arias (monster or sex kitten?). Indeed, the uncertainty of identity is one of the most disturbing elements of the monstrous feminine; the biggest problem to be reckoned with: “classifications and reclassifications in an uncertain world of categories whose importance shifts with every minor change in context…the drama here lies in the uncertainties of valuation and identities.” [38] It is this categorical instability, this uncertainty of valuation, the contrived either/or dilemmas facing viewers that lead to the shaping of the Jodi Arias trial as a “whodunit.”

The “whodunit” aspect of the Arias trial stems from its narrative attention to the element of horror, particularly with regard to the characteristics of multiplicity and duplicity integral to the construction of the monstrous feminine. The fact that the trial is framed as a mystery can be aptly explained in terms of Teresa de Lauretis’s theory of the Oedipal quest—the idea that the woman is enigmatic and Sphinx-like; a riddle to be solved; a code to be cracked.[39] Ultimately, the way the Arias narrative is framed invites viewers to participate in a sense of discovery; the illusion of uncovering a secret. But is there really a secret? After all, we already know that Arias committed the crime. Apparently, now the question is which (of two or more) versions of Arias committed the crime, and who is she really? The idea that there is some “Truth” to be uncovered is the driving factor in de Lauretis’s discussion of the Oedipal quest. “So many films follow an Oedipal trajectory, usually figuring a male hero-individual, who embarks upon a journey that will involve him crossing a boundary and penetrating the ‘other space’.”[40] The “other space” that is being penetrated is the feminine. The hero must conquer her. Creed too, comments on this dynamic. When the male hero enters the ‘other space’ the “Sphinx, who…knows the answers to the secret of life…[is] no longer the subject of the narrative, [she] has become the object of the narrative of the male hero. After he has solved her riddle, she will destroy herself.” [41] Thus, the trial narrative is set up as a conundrum—the prosecutor will extract the Truth from the accused, and the Truth is dependent, of course, on how the debate itself is framed: abused woman or cold-blooded killer? Although the Arias case is not particularly mysterious, and Arias herself is not exactly an enigma, she must be presented as such because in order to answer the question of who she is, more information—the kind that can be provided only by those closest to the action—is always necessary. However, “Information can’t solve the problem because the problem is one of belief, not knowledge.”[42] In other words, according to media theorist Jodi Dean, once a belief about a particular situation has been fomented, no amount of empirical knowledge is going to change that belief if its supporting narrative continues to be structured in the same way. Dean goes on to say: “The technologies believe for us, accessing information even if we cannot. Permanent media bring us closer to the secret but continue to hold it just out of reach. The secret thus no longer sutures together the split public. Installed in new technologies it now functions as the stimulus and currency of the information economy.”[43] In other words, the idea of building consensus, the notion of constructing a common monster for the sake of unifying the public has now become secondary to the process of building beliefs. The very idea of withholding information, the rhetorical process of suggesting that any day now we might be granted access to the “right” piece of information—the privileged knowledge which will illuminate everything—is what really drives viewers to tune into the “Jodi Show” day and after day. No matter how many “facts” emerge about the case, no matter whose Twitter feed we follow, no matter who is reporting on the drama occurring in the courthouse, as Dean points out, the information is unlikely to challenge what we have already been primed to believe about who the monster is and the position she occupies in the public consciousness. The tactic of genre-melding in the Arias narrative is therefore used as a blind—it appears to be supplying the viewer with new information, but in fact, it is being used primarily to foment belief in the viewer—a belief that there is a Truth to be uncovered.

Conclusion

Certainly, constructing criminals as a monsters serves to dehumanize them, but what does such a construction say about us—those who are engaged in crafting the monster narrative? Monsters do significant cultural work. They act as deterrents or correctives to bad behavior, they instruct or show us about ourselves, and they unify us by providing us with a perceived common enemy. Constructing Arias as a monster serves to promote the idea of social purity, engages viewers by making them feel personal investment in the trial proceedings, and ultimately bonds them in a public quest for “Truth.” In particular, the construction of the monstrous feminine in characterizing the Arias/Alexander story is crucial to generating public interest. Although the case presents what appears to be a drama of identity, the fallacious binaries conveyed to viewers reinscribe the trope of the monstrous feminine. In Hollywood, the monster is always killed, but in real life we attempt to sublimate–or “rehabilitate”–our monsters by sending them to correctional facilities. However, the presence of the death penalty as well as popular constructions of the monster suggest that we do not believe that monsters can be “corrected.” Ironically then, perhaps what we end up attempting to sublimate is not the monster per se, but our own desire to kill it–a desire that inevitably finds expression at an increasingly indeterminate border between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy.

References

“Along Came Jodi.” Dateline. NBC. 1 Mar. 2013. Television.

Boedecker, Hal. “Jodi Arias: Will She Talk Herself to Death?” Orlando Sentinel. Tribune Newspaper, 22 May 2013. Web.

Breuer, Howard, and Jill Smolowe. “The Many Faces of Jodi Arias.” People.com. Time Inc., 08 Apr. 2013. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.

Chaudhuri, Shohini. Feminist Film Theorists: Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Creed. New York: Routledge Critical Thinkers, 2006.

Clover, Carol.  Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. Princeton NJ: Princeton, UP. 1992.

Creed, Barbara. Media Matrix: Sexing the New Reality. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2003.

The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. London: Routledge, 1993.

Curry, Colleen. “Jodi Arias Trial Puts Mormon Sex Rules in Spotlight.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 1 Feb. 2013. Web.

Dean, Jodi. Publicity’s Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2002. Print.

De Lauretis, Teresa. Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1984.

Dr. Drew Staff. “Grade Kirk Nurmi’s Closing Argument” Dr. Drew on Call HLN. Cable News Network, 3 May. 2014. Web.

— “How Would You Grade Kirk Nurmi?” Dr. Drew on Call. HLN. Cable News Network, 23 Apr. 2013. Web.

Errigo, Angie. “Fatal Attraction: Glenn Close Turns into a Monstrous One-Woman Adultery-Deterrent” Empireonline.com. Bauer Consumer Media, n.d. Web.

Hogan, Shanna. Picture Perfect: The Jodi Arias Story; A Beautiful Photographer, Her Mormon Lover, and a Brutal Murder. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

“In Her Own Words.” 48 Hours. CBS Interactive. September 2008. Web.

“Jodi Arias Dirty Little Secret.” MyLifetime.com. n.p., 22 June 2013. Web.

“Jodi Arias Secrets Revealed.” CNN.com. Cable News Network, 18 Apr. 2013.

Kopytoff, Igor. “The Cultural Biography of Things” The Social Life of Things:

Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Ed. Arjun Appadurai. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Lohr, David. “Jodi Arias Case: Twists And Delays In Alleged Femme Fatale’s Murder Trial.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 29 Dec. 2011. Web.

— “Jodi Arias Timeline (UPDATED).” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 24 May 2013. Web.

“Obsession: The Jodi Arias Trial.” Dateline. NBC. 10 May. 2013. Television.

Pelisek, Christine. “Will Jodi Arias Go Free?” The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 03 May 2013. Web.

“Picture Perfect: The Trial of Jodi Arias.” 48 Hours. CBS Interactive, 19 Jan. 2013. Web.

Schwartz, David. “Arizona Jury Foreman Says Believed Jodi Arias Was Abused.” Reuters US Edition. Reuters.com, 24 May 2013. Web.

Skoloff, Brian and Josh Hoffner. Killer Girlfriend: The Jodi Arias Story. Waterfront Digital Press, May, 2013.

“The Closely Guarded Secret of Jodi Arias’ Trial.” Inside Edition. n.p., 03 May 2013. Web.

Thomas, Alexandra. “After Dark Reenacts Arias Killing.” HLNtv.com. Cable News Network, 29 May 2013.

“Unraveling the Lies of Jodi Arias.” 48 Hours. CBS Interactive, 17 May 2013. Web.

Van Horn, Charisse.  “Did Jodi Arias Recreate Psycho Scene with Travis Alexander?” Crime and Courts News. Blogger, 8 May 2013. Web.

Velez-Mitchell, Jane. Exposed: The Secret Life of Jodi Arias. William Morrow, August 20, 2013

—  “Verdict Watch Life or Death?” CNN.com Transcripts. Cable News Network, 21 May 2013. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.

Williams, Linda. “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly 44.4 (1991):

2-13.

Notes:


[1] “Obsession: The Jodi Arias Trial.” Dateline. NBC. 10 May. 2013. Also, Colleen Curry, “Jodi Arias Trial Puts Mormon Sex Rules in Spotlight.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 1 Feb. 2013. Web.

[2] Barbara Creed, The Monstrous Feminine: Film, Feminism, Psychoanalysis. (London: Routledge, 1993), 7.

[3] Ibid., 4.

[4] “Jodi Arias: In Her Own Words” is no longer available online. It was used as evidence of Arias’s cover-up during the trial, and was then removed from the 48 Hours site. Content from this original interview was incorporated into two later episodes of 48 Hours: “Picture Perfect” and  “Unraveling the Lies of Jodi Arias.”

[5] David Lohr “Jodi Arias Case: Twists And Delays In Alleged Femme Fatale’s Murder Trial.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 29 Dec. 2011. Web.

[6] David Lohr “Jodi Arias Timeline (UPDATED).” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 24 May 2013. Web.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Linda Williams  “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess.” Film Quarterly 44.4 (1991): 2-13.

[9] “Jodi Arias Dirty Little Secret.” MyLifetime.com. n.p., 22 June 2013. Web.

[10] Most of these were written hastily by journalists, sold as ebooks and updated periodically. Noteworthy examples are HLN reporter Jane Velez-Mitchell’s Exposed: The Secret Life of Jodi Arias, William Morrow, August 20, 2013 and Associated Press Reporter Brian  Skoloff’s Killer Girlfriend: The Jodi Arias Story. Waterfront Digital Press, May, 2013.

[11] Alexandra Thomas “After Dark Reenacts Arias Killing.” HLNtv.com. Cable News Network, 29 May 2013. Web.

[12] Dr. Stephen Pitt quoted in Obsession, 10 May, 2013.

[13] Pelisek, Christine. “Will Jodi Arias Go Free?” The Daily Beast. Newsweek/Daily Beast, 03 May 2013. Web.

[14] Carol Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film. (Princeton NJ: Princeton, UP. 1992), 35.

[15] Shanna Hogan. Picture Perfect: The Jodi Arias Story; A Beautiful Photographer, Her Mormon Lover, and a Brutal Murder. (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2013), 270.

[16] Angie Errigo, “Fatal Attraction: Glenn Close Turns into a Monstrous One-Woman Adultery-Deterrent” Empireonline.com. Bauer Consumer Media, n.d. Web.

[17] Hogan, Picture Perfect, 18.

[18] “Along Came Jodi.” Dateline. NBC. 1 Mar. 2013. Television and Web.

[19] Charisse Van Horn, “Did Jodi Arias Recreate Psycho Scene with Travis Alexander?”

Crime and Courts News. Blogger, 8 May 2013. Web.

[20] These images had originally appeared on the Justice4Travis Twitter feed.

[21] Clover, Men, Women, and Chainsaws, 101-102.

[22] Hogan, Picture Perfect, 108 and 117.

[23] Creed, Monstrous, 8

[24] David Schwartz. “Arizona Jury Foreman Says Believed Jodi Arias Was Abused.” Reuters US Edition. Reuters.com, 24 May 2013. Web.

[25] Barbara Creed Media Matrix: Sexing the New Reality. (Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2003) 37.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Chaudhuri, Shohini. Feminist Film Theorists: Laura Mulvey, Kaja Silverman, Teresa de Lauretis, Barbara Creed. (New York: Routledge Critical Thinkers, 2006) 21-23.

[28] Dr. Drew Staff. “Grade Kirk Nurmi’s Closing Argument” Dr. Drew on Call HLN. Cable News Network, 3 May. 2014. Web. Also, “How Would You Grade Kirk Nurmi?” 23 Apr. 2013. Web.

[29] “Obsession” Dateline. NBC. 10 May, 2013.

[30] Ibid.

[31] The idea of Jodi Arias having “many faces” was also taken up by several other news outlets. An example is Howard Breuer and Jill Smolowe. “The Many Faces of Jodi Arias.” People.com. Time Inc., 08 Apr. 2013. Web.

[32] “The Closely Guarded Secret of Jodi Arias’ Trial.” Inside Edition. n.p., 03 May 2013.

[33] Boedecker, Hal. “Jodi Arias: Will She Talk Herself to Death?” Orlando Sentinel. Tribune Newspaper, 22 May 2013. Web.

[34] “Obsession” Dateline.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Igor Kopytoff “The Cultural Biography of Things” The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Ed. Arjun Appadurai. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986) 89-90.

[37] Ibid., 89.

[38] Ibid., 90.

[39] Teresa de Lauretis, Alice Doesn’t: Feminism, Semiotics, Cinema. (Bloomington, IN:

Indiana UP, 1984), 119.

[40] Ibid.,119.

[41] Creed, Monstrous, 26.

[42] Jodi Dean, Publicity’s Secret: How Technoculture Capitalizes on Democracy. (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2002),40.

[43] Ibid.

Bio: Elizabeth Lowry received her PhD in Rhetoric and Composition from Arizona State University where she now holds a Lecturer position in Rhetoric and Composition. Her research interests include, nineteenth century feminism, historiography, sustainability, public spheres theory, material culture, and women’s autobiography. Her published work appears in the Rhetoric Review, Aries, Word and Text, and in edited collections.

 

On Cinema, Stars, Boleros y Comedia: Contesting Cold War Repression through Mexican American Popular Culture in the pages of La Opinion – Soledad Vidal

Abstract: This article explores the role that La Opinion, a Mexican American press that rose to meet the growing needs of Mexicans of first and second generation in the U.S. Southwest, played in addressing migrants through a pedagogy of ethnic consciousness. It is argued that through Mexican forms of entertainment that addressed audiences in a familiar Spanish language, the paper enabled the community to simultaneously be immigrants, Mexican and American subjects. Helping promote Mexican entertainment niches, La Opinion encouraged audiences to visit the cine Mejicano to preserve culture, support the Mexican film industry during labor strikes, and enjoy relief from Cold War-related layoffs, union demonstrations and increased discrimination.

Figure 1: José Pedro Infante Cruz, better known as Pedro Infante, the famous actor and singer of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema

“Mexico, dearly beloved, if I die far away from you
let them say that I’m just sleeping and
may they bring me back home to you.”
                  ~ Jorge Negrete

Suburbanization, coupled with the decline of public transportation, affected 1950s entertainment patterns across the United States as suburban families traded their love affair with the big screen for the privacy of television viewership in single family homes. As suburbia spread, those who did not have access to transportation found it increasingly difficult to reach downtown centers and go to the movies.  Despite the postwar growth of the U.S. suburbs, Mexican immigrants continued to move into and revitalize urban ethnic neighborhoods transforming Los Angeles entertainment sites into their own. La Opinion, a Mexican American press that rose to meet the growing needs of Mexicans of first and second generation in the U.S. Southwest addressed migrants through a pedagogy of ethnic consciousness. The paper emerged as a form of immigrant support system and a coping institution that addressed themes centered on the economic, social and racial assimilation problems that resulted from World War II. Since 1900s, Mexican immigrants, more than any other group, had served as the backbone of the American Southwestern economy responding to America’s vacancies in labor.[1] As Mexican Americans joined the ranks of the National Guard, the Army reserve, enlisted in the United States Military, and signed agricultural agreements to tend U.S. fields, they relocated north providing a service to the United States and laying the roots of community in the process.

La Opinion celebrated Mexican political and civic contributions to claim a stake in Americanism during the Cold War period. However, the paper also revealed its vision to help establish a Mexican community that reflected in many ways the Mexican homeland that migrants left behind.  Through Mexican forms of entertainment that addressed audiences in a familiar Spanish language, the paper enabled the community to simultaneously be immigrants, Mexican and American subjects. Mexican American entertainment and more specifically, the “Cine” (movie) section of the paper emerged as the most resistant to assimilative rhetoric and as the paper’s most visible stronghold of Mexican cultural heritage. La Opinion reserved its popular cultural pages to appeal to the Mexican community’s desire to assimilate into American society within a space of Mexican cultural affirmation. Movie-goers who lived and labored in Los Angeles turned to Mexican entertainment to fill a void in Mexican representation in U.S. cinema and to cope with the nostalgia of missing home.

La Opinion’s entertainment section revealed a deep affection for Mexican performers showcasing Mexican actors, mariachi singers and comedians in glamorous downtown movie houses in Los Angeles. Through “painful self-recognitions” as captured in satires, critiques, political commentary and melodramas, Mexican entertainers connected Mexican American audiences to their homeland.[2] During this period, Hollywood catered to middle-class and American-born patrons. Through location, thematic content and cost of attendance the United States film industry demonstrated “a general indifference toward the treatment of Hispanic themes.”[3]  Yet La Opinion reveals that Los Angeles’ Mexican-descent readers responded to the absence of representation in mainstream Hollywood productions through the creation and support of their own cultural niche. Lining the Los Angeles historic center, movie palaces like the Million Dollar and the Mayan emerged as centers of Latin American showcase.[4] Located at Broadway and 3rd Street in Los Angeles, the Million Dollar’s lobby was decorated with large posters from beloved 1950s stars such as Pedro Infante, El Trio Los Panchos, Cantinflas and Tin Tan.  Mexicans living in Los Angeles flocked to local Los Angeles movie houses to watch stage shows featuring Mexico’s biggest stars. The experience of dressing up in style, waiting in line for over an hour, and cheering on their favorite actors revealed the role of Mexican entertainment to a truly integrated community. Bruce Corwin, the president of Metropolitan Theaters company that leased the Million Dollar on and off in the 1940s remembered the excitement of parents, grandparents and children as they awaited the shows. “To them,” stated Corwin, “the Million Dollar was a magical name” eliciting memories of larger-than-life stars.[5]

The Cine (cinema) section of La Opinion promoted and affirmed cultural productions from Mexico by encouraging local Mexican communities to seek Mexican entertainment at local glamorous houses. Frank Fouce, who leased the Million Dollar Theater in 1949, is credited from saving it from downtown’s decline by refocusing entertainment to suit the Hispanic community’s tastes.[6] By the 1950s, the postwar push to the suburbs turned the Million Dollar theater from a Hollywood movie house where Charlie Chaplin had once performed into a showcase of Mexican talent.

Helping promote Mexican entertainment niches, La Opinion published big advertisements on upcoming stars and musical and comedic tours. The paper also delved into popular gossip about las estrellas (movie stars) hooking readers by leaking stories about undercover romances and ego-fueled confrontations between divas and idols. Whether viewers stepped out to watch Un Divorcio (Emilio Gomez Muriel, 1953), Salt of the Earth (Herbert J. Biberman, 1954), or Los Hijos de Maria Morales (Fernando de Fuentes, 1952) among many other Mexican productions, La Opinion encouraged audiences to visit the cine Mejicano to preserve culture, support the Mexican film industry during labor strikes, and enjoy relief from Cold War-related layoffs, union demonstrations and increased discrimination. Mexican comedies in particular played more than an entertainment role. They were promoted by La Opinion as healing mechanisms and uplifting popular culture venues that helped the Mexican American community cope with layoffs in transportation and the food industries.[7] In June 11, 1950, for example, the Cine section praised the movie “Enredate y Veras” (Get Entangled and See, Carlos Orellana, 1948), claiming that while the community was affected by the tram and bread maker strikes, “Mexican humor [was] the best antidote to temporary unemployment.” In the process of prescribing film as a treatment for economic uncertainty, La Opinion advanced two important goals: promoting the financial prosperity of local business by helping raise film attendance to local Mexican theaters, and serving as a defender of the Mexican migrants facing discrimination during the Cold-War period.

Figure 2: A poster advertising Mexican Cinema features at Los Angeles’ Million Dollar Theater

During and shortly after World War II, Mexican cinema inside Mexico received a boost, as the war lessened foreign competition in filmmaking, and the U.S. focused its films on war-related themes that, according to film critics writing for La Opinion in 1954, “were disliked and deemed distasteful by Mexican audiences.”[8] During its Golden Era, Mexican cinema had achieved a level of economic, artistic, and popular success unprecedented in any other Latin American country.[9] Spanning roughly from 1935 to 1955, Mexico’s Golden Era witnessed a vast expansion of the Mexican film industry across Latin America in a manner comparable to the influence of Hollywood on the English-speaking world. By 1948, Mexico had out-produced filmmakers throughout Latin America with approximately 2.5 million tickets sold with foreign sales amounting to 75 percent of admissions.[10] Mexican film during this period focused on narratives of belonging that emphasized moral teachings, social problems, and the melodrama, a genre of film that delved deep into personal relationships and, more pointedly, on problems rooted in the family.

Mexico’s focus on the family resulted from influences stemming from the aftermath of World War II, as Hollywood filmmakers working in a variety of genres from westerns to thrillers turned to the family. The genre to most effectively address the institution of the family was the melodrama. The box-office success of Mexican films continued after the end of World War II when Mexican cinema became focused on commercial films. Mexican melodrama idealized Mexican life and emphasized the importance of family and national unity at a time of economic and social crisis.[11] As Jackie Byars explains, Hollywood melodramas also assumed various shapes, such as patriarchal melodrama; maternal melodrama, typically set in a community of women and children where the patriarch is absent; and lover-centered melodrama which most directly “laid bare the family’s internal contradictions.”[12] Big stars such as Marga Lopez, whom La Opinion described as “la artista argentina del cine mexicano” (the argentine artist of Mexico’s cinema), played numerous leading roles in melodramas helping to usher in the golden age of Mexican female depictions. Revered by La Opinion as one of Mexico’s most talented stars, Marga Lopez left an imprint in melodrama through her masterful performances as a loving, suffering wife. Born in Argentina, she arrived in Mexico when she was a young girl and made her film debut with German Valdes “Tin Tan” in El Hijo Desobediente (The Disobedient Child) directed by Humberto Gomez Landero in 1945. Her performances led to four Ariels (Mexican awards in film). After establishing herself as a great dame of Mexican cinema, Lopez became a Mexican citizen in 1955, eventually transitioning her career from film into TV telenovelas (soap operas).[13] In the period that preceded Lopez, female roles had pushed beyond the traditional fiery, frivolous, and sensual senoritas, for stronger parts that cast Mexican women in bolder roles.[14] However, by the 1950s the quality of female roles entered into a period of decline, as the narrative of the family returned women to the home.[15]

Family melodramas, also known as maternal melodramas, women’s films, or “weepies” centered on the problems of love, sexuality, and parenting.[16] Typically promoting a female centered plot, “weepies” addressed a female audience and focused on women, their lives, and their relationships with other women, a trend that feminist film theorist Nancy Chodorow argues was significant considering that women had been marginalized in other film genres.[17] Un Divorcio, (A Divorce, directed by Emilio Gomez Muriel, 1953) a Mexican film starring Marga Lopez and Carlos Moctezuma, was revered in La Opinion as an example of a superb melodrama that delved into maternal problems, women’s conflicts, and the dangerous threat of divorce.

Un Divorcio’s lead actor, Carlos Lopez de Moctezuma, who played the stoic patriarch in the film, was regularly featured in the Cine section of the press. “Our villain,” as La Opinion warmly referred to him, had built a prosperous film career by being cast as a “malo” (antihero); a personality trait that contrasted “his radiant personality.”[18] In an interview with La Opinion, Moctezuma revealed that his career in acting had started with his love for theater. Yet due to the flexibility of the Mexican entertainment industry, where theater and film actors frequently crossed over, Moctezuma eventually chose film, appearing in more than 96 motion pictures throughout his career.

I went to the movies to earn money and then lost it taking theater roles. In the end, I gave up my love for theater, choosing film. I cannot complain. I have built a long career in film, even though I have always been cast in villain roles. The industry classified me in that role and I have adapted to it and very happily obliged.[19]

Villain or hero, La Opinion adored Moctezuma and frequently published candid interviews with Mexico’s favorite stars. However, the early 1950’s film critic’s corner of La Opinion addressed problems inherent in the protection of a star-studded system that featured the same actors who, while dear to the Mexican viewership, appeared to monopolize roles leaving no room for new talent.[20]   On October 11, 1952, La Opinion film critics pleaded with the Mexican film industry to make room for fresh talent:

We need young actresses and actors. There is a crisis in young acting talent. The lack of new young actors is affecting theaters and movies that now operate at a minimal capacity. In our movies one rarely sees young actors. Instead, we are exposed to the same actors in many repeated roles. These beloved stars, who started their film careers in their youth are now aging yet they are still playing the same protagonist roles. This is not going to be attractive for much longer, as leading stars become grandparents, yet keep playing seductive roles. Even though the beautiful stars are photogenic, their souls are aged and this affects film.[21]

The article added that young talent was rarely cast in protagonist roles. Relegated mostly to secondary parts, young actors, stated La Opinion, “fear taking leading roles.” For their part, movie producers, too, worried that promoting new talent would affect ticket sales as the public, unfamiliar with new talent, would be hesitant to watch films with unknown actors. La Opinion disagreed with the old model that protected a few acting elite and instead advocated change.  “So then,” stated the paper, “we continue with our antiquated movie cast of 10 or even 15 years ago as if time has stood still.” Movie viewers, stated the columnist, “are tired of the same old faces. They can even anticipate the actor’s facial gestures, the dropping of the eyes, their punch lines, their melodramatic acting style and at times even predict the next line. The only thing that changes is wardrobe.” Pressing for a change, the paper argued that “we need new young talent now. We have a serious problem facing the future of our film. If things keep going as they are, we will find ourselves without talent 30 years from now.”[22]

La Opinion boldly critiqued aspects of Mexican film that could potentially affect Mexico’s reputation as a respectable cinematographic industry. When it came to favorite genres, the paper praised melodramas as “Mexico’s movie genre that captured Mexico’s history and its people.”[23] However, during the 1950s La Opinion also advertised a new film genre: the social protest picture, which emerged as a reaction to the Cold War practice of blacklisting actors and technicians who worked on anti-capitalistic films. While La Opinion promoted itself as a progressive, pro-liberal press, the Cine section revealed some internal ideological contradictions, as the paper supported both capitalistic practices as well as films that critiqued U.S. discrimination against Mexican Americans. One of the most advertised social problem films was Herbert Biberman’s Salt of the Earth. The film focused on the 1951 strike by a branch of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers operating in Baynard, New Mexico. At the core of its message, the film highlighted the sacrifices of the miners who challenged the Empire Zinc Corporation over wages and working conditions. Salt of the Earth triggered the suppression of both the film and the Mexican labor union at the height of Cold War America.[24] In order to produce the film, Biberman recruited the services of blacklisted screenwriter Michael Wilson and also enlisted actual members of the local union who had participated in the strike. Miners and their families agreed to participate in the film as long as Biberman allowed them a measure of control over the script to ensure its accuracy in the representation of the mining community.[25] The members of Local 890 insisted on a portrayal that would reveal how they came together as a community to counter oppression from Anglo interests. As a condition of performing, the miners refused to play into any gendered stereotypes that referenced machismo, subordination of women, illiteracy, ignorance, or weakness. Biberman accepted the miners’ requests and thus began production of the story. Salt of the Earth would be told through the eyes and experiences of Esperanza Quintero, played by Mexican actress, Rosaura Revueltas. The film emphasized the exploitation of Mexican employees through low wages, poor safety conditions and inadequate housing. Led by Esperanza Quintero, miner women, too, organized, fought and picketed for improved conditions.

Figure 3: Rosaura Revueltas in Salt of the Earth.

Reporting on the film, La Opinion published an interview with Revueltas on October 12, 1952. In this interview, Revueltas told journalist Pedro Martinez that she was headed to Hollywood to “take part in a film that due to its social content will be tremendously transcendental.” Martinez reported that the U.S. was interested in keeping a close eye on Revuelta’s film since “this movie will raise the question of discrimination of humble Mexican miners who work in the mines of New Mexico.” Martinez warned that “this movie will not show in the U.S. due to its drastic censorship.” Praising Revueltas and Salt of the Earth, La Opinion lauded the film’s “realistic style similar to Italian films,” and added that Salt of the Earth was filmed on site and without fake sets.  At the conclusion of the interview, La Opinion thanked Revuelta for bravely taking the role and for helping to bring justice to hard-working Mexican Americans.

               Salt of the Earth’s story explored many firsts, addressing the struggles of Mexican American miners, while also highlighting gender inequality within the same community. Anglo abuse and Mexican gender inequality emerged as themes that revealed dual systems of abuse.  While initially welcoming women’s participation in all aspects of the strike, the film showed that Mexican male miners initially resisted women’s public roles. However, when workers won the strike in the end, the men realized that they, too, had contributed to their community’s abuse. The film, which premiered in 1954, was immediately censored in the U.S. The film was produced independently from the Hollywood studio system during the hysteria of the Cold War and was virtually banned from ever being shown in the U.S. In 1954, however, the film played briefly in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco.  It was released in Canada and in Europe to widespread acclaim, and was shown again in the U.S. in 1965. Salt of the Earth’s repression revealed the pervasive impact of Cold War ideology in Hollywood productions. The film’s depiction of Mexican American mine workers’ struggles in the copper mines of New Mexico exposed the U.S. government’s harassment of labor unionism, particularly targeting the Mexican American workers in the early 1950s. [26]

In addition to workplace violations, the film exposed gender inequality in the Mexican American community through the central character of Esperanza. Salt of the Earth highlighted women’s participation in the strikes through various roles including public activities, letter writing, and picketing. According to Deborah Rosenfelt, Salt of the Earth addressed domesticity and child rearing as important political issues. The film condemned macho attitudes as women battled to subvert their inferior places within the family and the community.[27] The picture was shot in 1953 and underwent many battles in its effort to reach completion and distribution. Salt of the Earth fought a string of uphill battles including boycotts, congressional red baiting, local vigilantism and lockouts from Hollywood’s technical facilities.[28] While the film was well received abroad, it was denied regular commercial distribution in the United States but was advertised as showing in local Mexican theaters in La Opinion. Pirated copies of the film found their way to colleges and communities where audiences gathered to view the forbidden film’s stories of worker rights and gender equality. [29]

During her interview with La Opinion Rosaura Revueltas confessed that she had waited all her life to play Esperanza.[30]  In her recollections, she mentioned that production of the film had been postponed several times; however, the producer, director and crew refused to give up on the important story. This film came close to Revuelta’s heart. Growing up in a miner family, Revueltas learned firsthand of the miners’ struggles and sorrows. Her upbringing, she told the press, developed her social conscience and passion to understand the nature of inequality and injustice. “From the moment I became an actress I longed to play a role to honor “my people,” recalled Revueltas.[31] When Salt of the Earth came into production she accepted without hesitation and began dreaming of her role as Esperanza, the miner’s wife she would portray in the film. When asked about the censorship of the film, Revueltas remembered being interrogated on several occasions by U.S. immigration officials who visited the lodge in Silver City where the cast and crew were staying. “They wanted to see my passport,” said Revueltas, and, she added, “they came to arrest me on the grounds that my passport lacked an admission seal. They told me that it was not serious that I could return to work the next day if a $500 bond was posted in El Paso” On March, 22, 1954, La Opinion reported on the censorship of the film under the title “Censura en Sal de La Tierra.”[32] (Censorship in Salt of the Earth). The article stated that the movie had been filmed in U.S. territory and, echoing Revuelta’s recollections, it had been interrupted under Washington’s order because “the U.S. government felt that the dialogue had communistic undertones and tendencies.”  Actress Rosaura Revueltas was deported after being detained for hours, stated La Opinion. The unfinished scenes were completed at a later time.[33]

Revueltas recalled interrogations into her political allegiance; specifically, if she was a member of the communist party and if she was doing a communist film. In her memoir, Revueltas revealed that producer Paul Jarrico followed her to El Paso to post the bond. As a result of her leading role in Salt of the Earth, Revueltas states that she was described as a “dangerous woman” who belonged in Mexico. Due to the political pressure demanding that she leave, Rosaura returned to Mexico while filmmakers continued on with the film. “I carried home with me the spirit that had made this picture possible, the determination that would see it completed, and the inner assurance that a handful of ignorant and frightened men could never prevent its being shown to the peoples of the world.” [34] According to La Opinion, after much review, Mexico had authorized Mexican audiences to see the film once Spanish subtitles were added.[35]

La Opinion celebrated Mexican leading actresses and actors, such as Rosaura Revueltas, even when controversial stories surrounded their favorite stars. In addition to promoting Mexican estrellas, La Opinion advertised Mexican musicians touring the U.S. Southwest with equal zeal and support. In the year 1950, for fifty cents a ticket, La Opinion encouraged audience members to attend affordable Mexican performances. The Trio Los Panchos was reviewed by the press as a popular traveling act from Mexico playing at the Los Angeles Teatro Mason where they were received with “open arms.”[36] La Opinion praised the group’s big personalities, saying that they knew “how to capture an audience right from the start. Their voices are sweet and expressive, the tone is emotional and their lyrics profound.”[37]  Discussing the group’s performance, La Opinion argued that the musicians’ appeal stemmed from their “masterful interpretation of a variety of Latin American music.” However, La Opinion liked the Trio Los Panchos best when “playing their own melodies and songs.” The incredible fan based generated by the Trio’s stemmed from the group’s struggles. Their songs reminded Mexican-descent fans of Mexican culture and traditions. “When they go home,” stated La Opinion, “Mexico inspires them to write and play new lyrics, and we benefit here when they play them in the United States.[38]

Part of their appeal resulted from their ability to play a variety of Spanish music that included the Argentinean tango, the Colombian cumbia, the pasodoble from Spain and samba from Brazil. The group earned labels such as “the ambassadors of romantic music,” masking the  group’s battle with depression, the isolation that came from leaving home and “the hell of drugs and alcohol,” that afflicted the musicians as a result of feeling rootless and at times dejected. [39] Throughout their sixty-year history the trio developed a unique style known as “the pachista style,” three voices, two guitars and a requinto, an instrument invented by one of the group’s members, Alfredo Gil. The Trio Los Panchos performed at local Los Angeles’ theaters, receiving accolades by La Opinion music reviewers. The group initially came together in New York in 1944, singing popular Mexican corridos and rancheras, yet later, the group gained international fame throughout Latin America and Spain with romantic boleros. At a time of Cold War discrimination against immigrants, The Trio came to the U.S. with dreams of conquering the country through their song. Their popularity with the Mexican community in the U.S. did not go unnoticed.  The U.S. military invited the group to help raise the spirits of soldiers serving in the war.  As a result, the group received contracts and invitations to perform in many venues, including combat zones where U.S. soldiers were stationed.

As Mexican Americans enlisted into the ranks of the U.S. military to demonstrate support of US defense goals, Mexican entertainers realized, too, that music could also be used to respond to the patriotic call of service. The U.S. had created a program to entertain and support injured soldiers in combat. In order to participate; however, La Opinion reported that Mexican performers had to become U.S. citizens and renounce their Mexican citizenship. In the case of El Trio, musician Hernando was already a citizen through his Puerto Rican heritage; however the remaining members temporarily embraced American citizenship in order to perform in military camps earning high praise from the press.[40]  Following the war, the musicians returned to Mexico to find that they could not work there due to their US status. In a show of allegiance to Mexico, they renounced their U.S citizenship and renationalized themselves as Mexicans.

Figure 4: El Trio Los Panchos

La Opinion celebrated the group as a truly Mexican band and announced shows, locations and the accessibility of entry fees.  Through advertisements that praised Mexican style, culture and community La Opinion helped the careers of Mexican entertainers on the other side of the border. The film industry in Mexico capitalized on El Trio’s popularity and signed them to appear in over thirty three movies.[41] Alternating between recordings, live shows and tours, El Trio performed in California during the 1950s decade for 14 weeks, making a reported twenty thousand dollars per week.[42] The group participated in an extensive tour that started in 1944 and lasted through 1951. Commenting on the tour, La Opinion referred to the group as “the most perfect musical trio in America.”[43] Their ability to play multiple Spanish style songs led their appeal to reach the east coast, capturing audiences in New York, especially Puertoricans and Dominicans. In 1948 the group relocated to Mexico, where they were received with open arms by Jorge Negrete, a beloved member of the Mexican acting dynasty.

Jorge Negrete received frequent praise on the pages of La Opinion. Like the case of El Trio, Mexican audiences in Los Angeles embraced Negrete’s love of Mexico, which he poured into his songs. Negrete’s music echoed the familiar sentiments of homesickness felt by working-class immigrants living in the U.S. Fiercely nationalistic, Negrete poured his love of Mexico into his songs: “Mexico will always be first and foremost….Mexico, dearly beloved, if I die far away from you let them say that I’m just sleeping and may they bring me back home to you.”[44] Adored in Mexico as in the U.S. southwest, Negrete embodied Mexican regionalism, traditional customs, inspiration and hope. “A profoundly loved man,” as his daughter described him, he helped to raise the reputation of Mexico’s cinematographic industry and “prevented the chaos within it.” Negrete would prove instrumental in the development of Mexico’s international film recognition. He contributed to the spreading of Mexico’s artistic industry within the international market, especially while leading as the president of the acting association in Mexico. Negrete would help El Trio singers expand their careers into film. In turn, the group remained thankful for Negrete’s support, especially when Negrete battled cirrhosis, which ultimately cost him his life.[45] When Negrete became gravely ill, the group visited him in the hospital, a touching meeting captured by La Opinion which quoted Negrete scolding El Trio for their bad habits: “You, gentlemen, who have abused alcohol, drugs and been bandits in this life look so healthy, and me I have been a sober man and this fatal illness falls upon me. Why?” He was described as a “corajudo” (quick tempered man) who took everything to heart.  When Negrete died in Houston in 1953, his remains were sent to Mexico, as Negrete had always wished. The popular actor died as he was preparing for a week long engagement at the Million Dollar. Reports of his death prompted an outpour of grief, as fans rushed to the theater and the Cedar-Sinai medical center hoping that news of his death had been nothing but malicious rumors. La Opinion reported on his illness, keeping an anxious community apprised of the decaying health of their beloved star.

On August 28, 1953, Mexican comedic superstar Mario Moreno Cantiflas, sent Jorge Negrete,  his “best regards and wishes for a speedy recovery.” “Strange,” stated La Opinion, “since Mario Moreno Cantinflas and Negrete were not speaking.”[46] While La Opinion’s entertainment section hailed the virtues of its beloved artistic Mexican talents, the paper also enjoyed reporting on animosities between the stars, highlighting disagreements between performers and uncovering secret romances and explosive outbursts on set.  The paper’s frequent commentary on Mexican entertainers’ moral character helped to propel popular actors into rising stardom. When entertainer Mario Moreno Cantinflas visited the dying Negrete at the hospital, La Opinion stated that Cantinflas’ visit had been “thoughtful, well received and kind.”

At the height of his popularity, La Opinion praised Jorge Negrete’s films and also published gossip on his whereabouts and his presumed romances. On August 28, 1953, La Opinion broke the undercover romance with Mexican diva, Maria Felix who was said to be promised to another. “Even though Maria Felix is engaged to Carlos Thompson, she and Negrete are living a happy romance which, our sources tell us, will lead them to the altar.”[47] In the gossip column, La Opinion asked, “Can you believe that Maria Felix, a woman with beauty, money and fame would settle for Jorge Negrete? She’s been picking him up every night after his film Tal Para Cual ( To Each Their Own, Rogelio A Gonzalez, 1953). She’s been driving a luxurious car and trying to hide so no one will know she’s in love with him.” While La Opinion had declared Maria Felix “out of Negrete’s league,” Felix married him, becoming his third wife and staying with him until his death. Heartbroken, Maria Felix oversaw an honorable burial for her husband in Mexico as had been his wish. She would reject a Mexican DC-3 airplane sent by the Mexican government to bring Negrete’s remain back to Mexico, deeming the aircraft  “unsuitable” to carry Negrete and to his legacy. [48]

La Opinion’s mixed reviews of Negrete, his life and his work echoed the star’s contentious reputation in Mexico where he was both loved and abhorred. In Mexico, Negrete had boldly taken on the film industry’s biggest battles regarding salary disputes emerging as the most vocal advocate of the film industry’s labor union. Negrete’s unwavering support of labor unions earned him both fans and enemies. As his daughter, Diana Negrete, recalls in the biography of her father, Negrete worked tirelessly for the creation of the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Produccion Cinematografica de la Republica Mexicana, a labor union that protected the rights of cinema employees in the republic of Mexico. Negrete longed to create a true brotherhood of Mexican and foreign actors across the world.[49] In 1951 La Opinion published a story retelling Negrete’s efforts to bring financial prosperity to all Mexican actors:

I am very committed to helping my fellow actors work within an environment of fairness, equity and justice. I am fighting their fight. The artistic field does not offer any support nor guarantee to actors and I do not think this is fair. I do not think that actors should be used as helpless lambs that labor themselves to the ground while others enrich their pockets at the actors’ expense.[50]

Negrete and Mexican popular comedian, Mario Moreno “Cantinflas stood out among La Opinion’s most talked about stars. Like the case of Negrete who through song and acts helped Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles recall nostalgic memories of home, Cantinflas would rise to stardom through his use of humor to elicit sympathy for the Mexican underdog. Mexican immigrants in the U.S. connected to Cantinflas’ portrayals of a Mexican working man struggling to survive. The comedian typically portrayed an outcast who accepted his socio-economic place in a harsh world while poking fun of the system that oppressed him. Through his use of double talk, jumbling together multiple conversations that typically undermined authority Cantinflas portrayed the shiftless migrant who triumphed through trickery over authorities in the United States.  In his book, Cantinflas and the Chaos of Mexican Modernity, Jeffrey M. Pilcher compared Cantinflas to Charlie Chaplin. As Pilcher put it, “Cantinflas represented the human debris of industrialization, rootless migrants to the big city who survived by their wits in a bewildering environment.”[51]  Mario Moreno Cantinflas, says Pilcher, became a symbol of Mexican national identity during Mexico’s transition from a traditional agrarian society to an industrial urban one.[52]

Through his popular performances advertised in La Opinion Cantinflas’ allowed Mexican working classes “a momentary release through laughter from the psychic demands and anxieties of masculine behavior.”[53] While his critics saw him as a symbol of the lowbrow Mexican working class, La Opinion celebrated him and promoted him enthusiastically throughout the 1950s. On March 23, 1954, he was listed as the actor earning the highest salary in Mexico. According to the Asociacion Nacional de Actores, Mario Moreno Cantinflas had earned an impressive one and a half million Mexican pesos between movies, theaters and tours in 1953 alone.[54] La Opinion helped to turn Cantinflas’ films into tremendous commercial successes in the U.S. Southwest. While intellectuals in Mexico critiqued his manner of speech, Cantinflas had a strong appeal with the masses and especially Mexican migrants and blue-collar workers. Prior to making it big, Cantinflas had experienced poverty in his childhood and occasionally gone hungry. His early struggles led the masses to embrace him.[55] Like Negrete who fought the fight of the lesser known actor, Cantinflas was concerned with the plight of the poor and used humor to critique and ridicule abusive leaders.

La Opinion helped Mexican comedians touring the U.S. to reach stardom.  Advertising performances with slogans such as “popular con precios populares,” (popular at affordable prices), Cantinflas’ artistic earnings were second by another popular entertainer German Valdes “Tin Tan,” who earned 200,000 Mexican pesos in 1952. However, despite advertising performances by Cantinflas and Tin Tan La Opinion frequently critiqued the stars on the same page. La Opinion movie experts referred to mass-appealing entertainers as low-brow comedians who tainted Mexico’s reputation as a reputable film house. The entertainment section of La Opinion captured the paper’s contradictions between profit advertisement for mass audience shows and La Opinion’s own stance on high brow and low brow Mexican film productions. During a critique of Tin Tan’s performance in Matenme Porque Me Muero (Kill Me Because I’m Dying) directed by Ismael Rodriguez, in 1951, an anonymous film reviewer stated that the film failed to entertain and would likely appeal to a very narrow margin.[56] The critic expressed his dislike for poor quality comedies and blamed the low brow comedic genre for giving Mexico a bad reputation in film-making.

Figure 5: Mexican popular comedian, Mario Moreno “Cantinflas”

“For those who do not care about refined themes and classical acting, then this film is a win. However, it is a true shame that Mexican comedies are limited to exploitative, grotesque sensualities or vulgarities that devalue the audience’s intellectual abilities and our morality. Film producers and participants who contribute to the making of Mexican films ought to know that the audience needs and wants more.”[57] The critic went on to argue that in the desire to make movies for popular appeal and the alluring quick profit motive, Mexican filmmakers “produce the worst form of propaganda against Mexico outside its republic.[58] However, not all film critics writing for La Opinion agreed with this judgment of Tin Tan or his comedic style. On January 9, 1952, Tin Tan’s El Ceniciento (Cinderell-o, directed by Gilberto Martinez Solares in 1952) was reviewed as “another triumph for Tin Tan who accomplished his primary goal as a performer: to make people laugh and laugh hard.” The critic praised Tin Tan stating that whether the characters he represented washed clothes or shined shoes, his performances focused on turning everyday situations into a comedy.[59]   Like the case of Cantinflas, Tin Tan had risen above cultural distinctions and “helped to unite audiences above languages because he mixed them in his speech. He rose above prejudice because he ignored it.”[60] His daughter described Tin Tan as a man who brought cultures together; who was able to “a matrimoniar a los Americans con los mexicanos” (to marry Americans with Mexicans).”[61]

Tin Tan developed a particular form of conduct, opting to ridicule himself to ease the antagonistic relationship between his mother, who was of humble Mexican background, and his grandmother, a woman of Italian descent who thought of herself of superior racial background. To cope with the racial and generational tensions at home, Tin Tan used humor as a defense mechanism, a reaction through which he was able to negate his reality and instead create another. His dedication to uplift discriminated workers through humor helped him to build a tremendous career as a Mexican comedic hero in the US southwest.  La Opinion routinely advertised Tin Tan’s performances through cartoonish images of the actor, portraying him with exaggerated big lips, a huge grin and baggy clothes.  He was considered one of the architects of Spanglish who popularized the image of the Pachuco, a Mexican American youth who belonged to neighborhood gangs. Tin Tan appeared in over one-hundred films and dubbed three of them for Walt Disney Studios.  La Opinion frequently referred to him as one of the most important Mexican entertainers of all time, and advertised his traveling act throughout Los Angeles’ venues.[62]

The Cine section of La Opinion helped readers connect and reflect upon a shared public culture. The actors and entertainers were widely known to the Mexican public who adored them. Mexican movies and actors were depicted as ambassadors of Mexican culture and represented in La Opinion as both popular and elite. Entertainers played a key role integrating the community through performances that recalled familiar Mexican problems. Promoted by La Opinion, Mexican stars journeyed to America were lucrative tours awaited them. And while La Opinion boosted attendance to films and shows, the paper’s film critics emerged as arbiters of taste attempting to sacrilize culture by establishing guidelines for the appropriate ways to read and analyze Mexican cinema. [63] Through advertisements and reviews La Opinion played a role in disciplining and training audiences. Thus, columnists contributed to the paper’s larger project of cultural uplift, “educating and refining a laborious people.”[64]

The community appreciated the accessibility of Mexican popular entertainment away from home. In a diverse nation, the criteria for Mexican culture’s aesthetic promoted Mexican cultural pride on the basis of separation and unwillingness to assimilate into Hollywood ways.  Movie critics and advice columnists were champions of Mexican culture promising both relief from disorder and an avenue to cultural legitimacy.  As audiences “escaped into culture” entertainment served as a mechanism that made it possible for Mexican audiences living and working in Los Angeles to retreat into their own private spaces and transform them through their own rules.[65] Attending the Teatros Mayan, Million Dollar and California allowed audiences to turn local spaces into enclaves of culture where audiences could indulge in their own cultural predilections and feel connected through performances that echoed familiar modes of behavior that were shared and commonly understood.  By promoting news, interviews, and gossip La Opinion helped Mexican performers traveling to the U.S. southwest to receive a cultural and sales boost. In the process, the paper hailed Mexicanness and encouraged the community to continue living and working in the U.S. without forgetting home.

Bibliography

Newspapers:

La Opinion, (Los Angeles, California).

Los Angeles Times, (Los Angeles, California).

Film:

Alejandro, Julio. Un Divorcio. VHS. Directed by Emilio Gomez Muriel. Mexico, DF, Mexico: Argel Films, 1953.

Cortazar, Ernesto. Los Hijos de Maria Morales. VHS. Directed by Fernando de Fuentes, Mexico, DF, Mexico: Diana, S.A., 1952.

Cortazar, Ernesto. Tal Para Cual. VHS. Directed by Rogelio A Gonzalez. Mexico DF, Mexico: Mier Y Brooks Producciones,  1953.

De Urdimalas, Pedro. Matenme Porque Me Muero. VHS. Directed by Ismael Rodriguez, Mexico, DF, Mexico: Estudios Churubusco Azteca, SA., 1951.

Garcia, Juan. El Ceniciento. VHS. Directed by Gilberto Martinez Solares. Mexico DF, Mexico: Mier Y Brooks Producciones, 1952.

Gomez Landero, Humberto. El Hijo Desobediente. VHS. Directed by Humberto Gomez Landero. Mexico DF, Mexico: AS Films Producciones Grovas,  1945.

Wilson, Michael. Salt of the Earth. VHS. Directed by Herbert J. Biberman. Bayard New Mexico, USA: Independent Productions, 1954.

 

Published Primary Sources, Books, Articles

Byars, Jackie. All that Hollywood Allows, Re-Reading Gender in the 1950s Melodrama. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Chacon, Ramon D.  “The Chicano Immigrant Press in Los Angeles: The Case of El Heraldo de Mexico, 1916-1920.” Journalism History 4:2 (1977): 48.

Chodorow, Nancy. Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

Correa, Armando. Legends en Español: The 100 Most Iconic Hispanic Entertainers of all Time. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2008.

Fernandez, Celina. Los Panchos. Madrid: Ediciones Martinez Roca, S.A., 2005.

Groves, Martha. “Restoration Planned for `Million Dollar Building Developer Buys Downtown Landmark.” Los Angeles Times (Pre-1997 Fulltext), Feb 10, 1989. http://search.proquest.com/docview/280596322?accountid=25347.

Gurza, Agustin. “Culture Mix: Million Dollar Dream; Robert Voskanian has Spent the Legendary Theaters Title Sum to Restore it as a Multicultural Venue.” Los Angeles Times, Apr 12, 2008. http://search.proquest.com/docview/422214580?accountid=25347.

Hershfield, Joanne .Mexican Cinema/Mexican Woman, 1940-1950. Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 1996.

Johnson, Reed. “Culture Monster; The Global Stage; Many Faces of a Mysterious Land; Astrid Hadad Takes on the Highs and Lows of Mexico at the Million Dollar Theater,” Los Angeles Times, Oct 19, 2011. http://search.proquest.com/docview/898822916?accountid=25347

Keller, Gary D. Hispanics and United States Film: An Overview Handbook. Tempe, AZ: Bilingual Press, 1994.

Levine, Lawrence. Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Lipsitz, George. Rainbow At Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s. Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

Lorence, James J. The Suppression of Salt of the Earth. How Hollywood, Big Labor and, Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1999.

Negrete, Diana. Jorge Negrete. Mexico, D.F: Editorial Diana, 1987.

Noriega, Chon. The Ethnic Eye. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Pilcher, Jeffrey M. Cantinflas And the Chaos of Mexican Modernity. Wilmington, DL: Scholarly Resources Inc. Wilmington, 2001.

Quintanilla, Michael. “Fashion Landmark / A World-Famous Store is Losing its Struggle to Survive.; Once Bustling, Now Bust; Victors, a Once-Popular Haberdashery, has Few Customers and is for Sale. the Downtown Buildings Widely Known Murals Tell of the Citys Rich Mexican Heritage. what Will Happen to them?” Los Angeles Times, Dec 25, 1998. http://search.proquest.com/docview/421355201?accountid=25347.

Rodriguez, Clara E. Latin Looks: Images of Latinas and Latinos in the U.S. Media. Boulder,CO: Westview Press, 1998

Rosenfelt, Deborah. Salt of the Earth. New York, NY: The Feminist Press, 1978.

Luis Rutiaga, Mario Moreno Cantinflas. D.F. México: Grupo Editorial Tomo, 2004.

Trevino, Joseph. “Million Dollar Theater Set to Reopen; Seeking New Life for the Former Showcase of Hollywood and Latino Stars, Managers Schedule Weekend Variety shows Catering to Hispanic Audiences,” Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1999. http://search.proquest.com/docview/421494147?accountid=25347 (accessed August 8, 2011).

Valdes Julian, Rosalia. La Historia Inedita de Tin Tan. D.F. México: Editorial Planeta Mexicana, 2003.

Woo, Elaine. “A New Chance for Pershing Square to Get a Fresh Start.” Los Angeles Times (Pre-1997 Fulltext), Dec 02, 1990. http://search.proquest.com/docview/281262180?accountid=25347.

 

Notes


[1] Ramon D. Chacon. “The Chicano Immigrant Press in Los Angeles: The Case of El Heraldo de Mexico, 1916-1920.” Journalism History 4:2 (1977): 48.

[2] Reed Johnson, “Culture Monster: The Global Stage; Many Faces of a Mysterious Land; Astrid Hadad Takes on the Highs and Lows of Mexico at the Million Dollar Theater,” Los Angeles Times, Oct 19, 2011. http://search.proquest.com/docview/898822916?accountid=25347 (accessed September 21, 2011).

[3] Gary D. Keller, Hispanics and United States Film: An Overview Handbook (Tempe: Bilingual Press, 1994), 9.

[4] La Opinion movie and entertainment section referred to the Mayan theater as El Maya. The historical landmark opened in 1927 in downtown Los Angeles. El Maya initially showcased musical comedies. By 1929, audiences attended the theater to watch Hollywood films. The popular theater transitioned into Spanish language films in the 1940s while continuing to host occasional stage shows. It was designed by Stiles O. Clements and Mexican artist and archeologist Francisco Cornejo was hired to sculpt the building’s Mexican, Mayan and Aztec motifs. The theater underwent renovations during the 1990s and now thrives as a nightclub.

[5] Joseph Trevino, “Million Dollar Theater Set to Reopen; Seeking New Life for the Former Showcase of Hollywood and Latino Stars, Managers Schedule Weekend Variety shows Catering to Hispanic Audiences,” Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1999. http://search.proquest.com/docview/421494147?accountid=25347 (accessed August 8, 2011).

[6] Joseph Trevino, Los Angeles Times, April 8, 1999.

[7] La Opinion, June 11, 1950.

[8] La Opinion, March 21, 1954.

[9] Joanne Hershfield, Mexican Cinema/Mexican Woman, 1940-1950 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2006), 4.

[10] Hershfield, 4.

[11] Hollywood melodramas also critiqued women’s roles in the 1950s casting leading actresses as glamorous beauties caught in the conflict between careering and domesticity. See Dolores Tierney, “Silver Sling-Backs and Mexican Melodrama: Salon Mexico and Danzon,” Screen 38:4 Winter (1997): 361.

[12] Jackie Byars, All that Hollywood Allows, Re-Reading Gender in the 1950s Melodrama (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 93.

[13] Armando Correa, Legends en Español: The 100 Most Iconic Hispanic Entertainers of all Time (New York: Penguin Group, 2008), 114.

[14] Clara E. Rodriguez, Latin Looks: Images of Latinas and Latinos in the U.S. Media (Boulder: Westview Press, 1998), 131.

[15] Jackie Byars, All that Hollywood Allows, Re-Reading Gender in the 1950s Melodrama, (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1991), 131.

[16] Byars, 54.

[17]  Nancy Chodorow, Feminism and Psychoanalytic Theory (Polity Press: United Kingdom, 1989), 103.

[18] La Opinion, September 5, 1953.

[19] La Opinion, September 5, 1953.

[20] La Opinion, October 11, 1952.

[21] La Opinion, October 11, 1952.

[22] La Opinion, October 11, 1952.

[23] La Opinion, September 22, 1951.

[24] James J. Lorence, The Suppression of Salt of the Earth. How Hollywood, Big Labor and, Politicians Blacklisted a Movie in Cold War America (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1999), 6.

[25] George Lipsitz, Rainbow At Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994), 293.

[26] Lorence, 9.

[27] Deborah Silverton Rosenfelt, Salt of the Earth (New York: The Feminist Press, 1978), 24.

[28] Rosenfelt, Salt of the Earth , 94.

[29] Rosenfelt, 94.

[30] La Opinion, October 18, 1952.

[31] Rosenfelt, 176.

[32] La Opinion, March 22, 1954.

[33] La Opinion, March 22, 1954.

[34] Rosenfelt, Salt of the Earth, 176.

[35] La Opinion, March 22, 1954.

[36] La Opinion, June 11, 1950.

[37] La Opinion, June 11, 1950.

[38] La Opinion, June 11, 1950.

[39] Celina Fernandez, Los Panchos (Madrid: Ediciones Martinez Roca, S.A., 2005), 35.

[40] Fernandez, Los Panchos, 34.

[41] Fernandez, Los Panchos, 43.

[42] La Opinion, November 17, 1950.

[43] La Opinion, November 17, 1950.

[44] Correa, Armando, Legends en Espanol: The 100 Most Iconic Hispanic Entertainers of all Time  (Penguin Group: New York, 2008), 146.

[45] La Opinion, August 22, 1953.

[46] La Opinion, August 28, 1953.

[47] La Opinion, August 28, 1953.

[48] La Opinion, August 28, 1953.

[49] Diana Negrete, Jorge Negrete (Mexico, D.F: Editorial Diana, 1987), 12.

[50] La Opinion, October 22, 1951.

[51] Jeffrey M. Pilcher, Cantinflas And the Chaos of Mexican Modernity (Delaware: Scholarly Resources Inc: Wilmington, 2001), xv.

[52] Pilcher,Cantinflas And the Chaos of Mexican Modernity, xvii.

[53] Pilcher, xviii.

[54] La Opinion, March 28, 1954.

[55] Luis Rutiaga, Mario Moreno Cantinflas (Mexico, D.F.: Grupo Editorial Tomo, 2004), 2.

[56] La Opinion, January 9, 1952.

[57] La Opinion, January 9, 1952.

[58] La Opinion, January 9, 1952.

[59] La Opinion, January 9, 1952.

[60] Rosalia Valdes Julian, La Historia Inedita de Tin Tan (Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Planeta Mexicana, 2003),12.

[61] Ibid, 12.

[62] Correa, Legends en Español, 88.

[63] For theories on the sacralization of culture, see Lawrence Levine, Highbrow Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 88.

[64] Levine, 201.

[65] Levine, Highbrow Lowbrow, 177.

 

Bio:

Soledad Vidal is the author of “Politics, Community And Pleasure: The Making Of Mexican-American Cold War Narratives In The Pages Of La Opinion.” The dissertation is organized around the discourse of the American dream; specifically, how the desire for consumption, liberal citizenship and labor in post World War II America produced specific accounts of migration in the pages of La Opinion. Her research interests lie in print culture and immigrant histories. She currently works at Soka University of America as a Writing Center Manager and Visiting Assistant Professor in Rhetoric and Composition.

 

A Moving Image Experience: Il Cinema Ritrovato: Bologna, June-July, 2010 – Wendy Haslem

A film festival is always a time machine, and Il Cinema Ritrovato doubly so. Every bit of film contributes to the kaleidoscope of a century, especially when screened now, at the beginning of a new century and during circumstances where almost no moment of film, and few entire films, count in the same way.

Peter von Bagh, Artistic Director, Il Cinema Ritrovato, (2010 9).

In 2010 the 24th edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato screened 313 films over eight days in four locations throughout the city of Bologna, Italy. The coordinator of Il Cinema Ritrovato, Guy Borlée and the artistic director Peter von Bagh were responsible for curating a festival of cinema dedicated to the conservation and exhibition of newly discovered films. Conservation technologies are the invisible and highly visible forces behind this festival. These technologies are revealed in newly cleaned, pristine images, brilliant with the erasure of traces of time and use. Films reveal narratives that are restored with the insertion of intertitles and even in black sequences highlighting those scenes that were beyond restoration. This is a festival that makes a dynamic contribution to the evolution of the history of world cinema. Il Cinema Ritrovato exhibits the results of conservation projects by the Cineteca Bologna, The World Film Foundation and other restoration institutions world wide. As von Bagh implies, this network connects organisations, spaces, people and histories beyond a simple chronology. Von Bagh perceives this festival to be as much about the future as the past. He writes:

Considering that the cinema year 2009-10 has been filled with especially infantile discussions about 3-D and related matters, I’m glad to state the overwhelming – and essential – presence in our program of technologies and the dialogue about them. This doesn’t mean only our dear themes of colour and widescreen, but also a more surprising face: that stepping into the midst of silent films is often also a trip to the future (Peter von Bagh, 2010 9).

This film festival not only connects the past to the present, it creates a culture that understands both as necessary for the future of the moving image. Il Cinema Ritrovato is a festival that cannot be reduced to the binary oppositions of ‘business’ and ‘audience’ festivals outlined by Mark Peranson (2009 23-37). In its diachronic connection of short films, feature films, documentaries and cinema from across film history, exhibited in spaces including theatres, museums and a Piazza, this is a “moving image experience” greater than film according to the definition outlined by Paolo Cherchi Usai. The moving image experience connects the act of seeing with creation, preservation and access (2008 9). In its history, in the establishment of its hierarchies and in the creation of its rituals, Il Cinema Ritrovato could be aligned closely with André Bazin’s effusive description of festivals, “in which people join in holy worship of a common transcendent reality, then the Festival is a religious Order” (1955, 2009 13-19).

This festival has the continuing support of screen luminaries like Martin Scorsese (who provides access to his archive) and prestigious organisations like The World Cinema Foundation which sponsors the restoration of many films. Some of these films are surprisingly new. Recent historical forces affecting the history of film are evident in the exhibition of Mest/Revenge (Ermek Shinarbaev, 1989), a film described by Kent Jones as “one of the greatest films to emerge from the Kazakh New Wave and one of the toughest” (2010 47). Mest, a film that investigates the Korean diaspora displaced into the Russian Far East was prohibited distribution by Soviet authorities and shelved as soon as it was completed. Mest was restored by The World Cinema Foundation and Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Film Laboratory, Bologna with the collaboration of its director Ermek Shinarbaev in 2010.

Programs of auteur films shown at Il Cinema Ritrovato include a retrospective of the films of Jean-Luc Godard, musicals created by Stanley Donen, silent and early sound films of John Ford, the films of Albert Capellani and a project reflecting the collaboration between Charlie Chaplin and Robert Florey. The ‘auteur’ is reconceptualised throughout these programs as embodying multiple identities, evident in nascent careers and in collaborations between filmmakers and studios. The festival consciously references the interrelationship between cinema and history in films that reflect ‘anni difficili’ in collections entitled: Hard Times: Italian Cinema Before the Codes (1945-1949), as well as Hard Times in Europe: European Cinema (1945-1952). A recurring feature of Il Cinema Ritrovato is ‘A Hundred Years Ago: European Films of 1910’, a program commemorating the cinematic technologies available one hundred years prior. Another program of films addressing issues of national identity, early communications and the development of global flows was ‘The Naples/Italy Project and Cinema of Emigration’ curated by Elena Correra and Luigi Virgolin. Many of the short films that comprise this collection were made at the turn of the century when the port city of Naples was a gateway to the rest of the world. Colour was also a focus in a program entitled ‘Searching For Colour in Films’ with many films (like Visconti’s Senso, 1954, Il Gattopardo, 1963 and Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar, 1954) restored to their original vibrancy. Curator Gian Luca Farinelli notes the importance of color when he writes that the “chromatic mood” of a film might be the most secret and intimate aspect of our relationship with films we have loved (2010 99). A program entitled ‘Fearless and Peerless: Adventurous Women of the Silent Screen’ showed films featuring active, mobile feminine protagonists, detective figures who travelled by ship, plane, horse and cart, even car, women armed with guns and chloroform and were not afraid to use them.

The Piazza Maggiore is the largest open air auditorium showing films for free, connecting the local community with film buffs, scholars and archivists. Each evening of the festival viewers gathered in the twilight reserving their seats before the dusk descended providing the ambience for the nightly screening. This public screen sits on an auspicious grounds in terms of history and architecture. On the right is The Basilica Maggiore shrouded by scaffolding supporting its reconstruction. The screen faces Bologna’s Archaeological Museum, a further indication of deference to the rich history of the Comune di Bologna. The screen is surrounded by cafes and restaurants with some of Bologna’s distinctive leaning towers visible in the streets beyond. A small bio box sits at the rear of the piazza, projecting light above the audience and through the celluloid – the medium of choice for Il Cinema Ritrovato. This large public screen provides the focal point for the festival. In 2010 Il Cinema Ritrovato screened restorations of  films like Boudu Saved From Drowning (Jean Renoir, 1932), African Queen (John Huston, 1951) and the classic musical Singin’ In The Rain (Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, 1952) which was introduced by the ebullient Stanley Donen.

 

Figure 1: Il Cinema Ritrovato, Piazza San Maggiore in the daylight, Bologna. Photograph: Simon McLean

Figure 2: Stanley Donen introducing Singin In The Rain. Photograph: Simon McLean

Two public screenings in The Piazza Maggiore illustrated both the innovation and the significance of this festival. The first was the breathtaking public presentation of Lumière! (2010). This portmanteau of short films curated by the Lumière  Institut, representing innovations in anaglyphic, stereoscopic film and autochromatic coloured film stock in early cinema. In 2010 the screening of Lumière! took place on a hot night when the Piazza teemed with more than six thousand people waiting to become only the second public audience in the world to watch the Lumière brothers’ experiments with stereoscopic illusions, precursors to 3D cinema. The audience demographic was broad, and included young Italian cinephiles, some luminaries from the world of cinema and film historians, many of whom would have experienced significant change in film and screen technologies throughout their lifetimes. On this particular night I noticed a young man with an awkward gait sitting uncomfortably close to a woman who set him back in his seat with a steely glare. In our row sat young mothers cradling babies on their laps. Someone had bought their dog and he slept, curled up by his owner’s feet for the entire screening. Overwhelmingly, the impression is of an incredibly diverse audience who met in the Piazza every night, a tangible sign of the vibrant life of film culture in Italy and of the devotion to the Bologna Cinematheque specifically, the organisation that presents Il Cinema Ritrovato annually.

It is not such a stretch  to imagine that the inventors Auguste and Louis Lumière were creating technologies to film and project cinema in three dimensions as early as the 1930s. However, this new package of short films displays the surprising extent of their experimentation beginning with the earliest impressions of pre-cinema in the single reel, static camera recordings of everyday events or ‘actualities’. Included within the collection of the Lumière  films presented at Il Cinema Ritrovato are the recognisable early scenes: workers leaving the Lumière  factory (La Sortie des Usines Lumière à Lyon, 1895), feeding the baby (Sortie d’usine, Repas de Bébé, 1895), but also early narrative films like The Waterer Watered (L’Arroseur Arose, 1895), sequences comprising more than a single shot, indications of experiments with cause and effect. One of the films in the collection shows a pedestrian being hit by a car, and then magically springing to his feet as the film is reversed, a homage to George Méliès and the potential for editing to provide illusions beyond reality. The magic of early cinema is evident in innovations in film narration, in experiments with space and perception, but also in the exhibition of images shot by travelling cameramen.

The program of Lumière  films includes sequences of panoramas of distant locations shot by Lumière  camera operators travelling throughout the world. One particular stereoscopic film included a panning shot revealing iconic buildings like The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia in the newly named city of Istanbul at the time that these images were recorded. With the camera mounted on a boat or even a bike, the Lumière Brothers are able to present early impressions of exotic cities as their camera scans locations visible from the Golden Horn and throughout Turkish street markets. A stereoscopic version of The Arrival of the Train at Ciotat Station (L’Arrivée d’un Train En Gare de La Ciotat, 1895), pushes Tom Gunning’s description of ‘the aesthetics of astonishment’ into a new, more contemporary realm. Whilst Gunning questions the mythology associated with early accounts of audience shock and the terror of witnessing the train arrive, audiences resplendent in their cardboard 3D glasses displayed the opposite – attentive wonder and fascination. With the experience of the IMAX and 3D screen common amongst contemporary audiences, shock is replaced by wonder and appreciation of the effects of stereoscopic technologies producing images in spatial relief. Coloured sequences created with the use of the Lumière’s patented autochromatic process displayed ladies in patterned dresses, pastel landscapes and the slightly unnatural glow of cityscapes. This collection of films shows the influence of the Lumière  family photography business in Louis and Auguste’s experiments with the development of cinematic technologies to produce delicately toned, coloured film.

Lumière! was presented and narrated by the director of the Lumière  Institute, Thierry Frémaux. The narration was both respectful and revealing. Frémaux showcased the Lumière  films which included sequences that feature a family of circus performers, with surprising images of children being juggled from the feet of their parents, their small bodies spinning through the air. The patriarch of this family reappears in a later sequence displaying his capacity for origami, folding and then modelling a range of hats. Frémaux drew our attention to detail in some of the staged sequences including the delight of two men dancing together at a formal ball. Films in this collection are designed to display spectacle, performance and magic. When the program of Lumière  films reached the end, it played again – in fast rewind – from the end to the beginning, a reminder of the range and depth of the images that comprise the collection. This digital restoration project emerged as a collaboration between the Institut Lumière  and L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory of Cineteca Bologna. These experiments in early cinematic technologies, including autochrome and anaglyph films, provided a fascinating, and at times breathtaking, collection of early cinematic experiences.

Another highlight screened in the Piazza was the latest version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), a screening that included an additional 15 minutes of footage. This recent version of Metropolis was discovered in the collection of Manuel Peña Rodriguez in 2008 and verified by the Buenos Aires Film Museum. The latest print is based on an original nitrate copy of the film that was purchased by the distributor, Adolfo Z. Wilson in 1927. The additional scenes stand out due to an alternative aspect ratio, and the surprising beauty of its faded and scratched original state. The combination of the deteriorated found material alongside the otherwise pristine film stock required viewers to look carefully and deeply into the new sequences, making visible the impact of time on celluloid. This version included detail about the rivalry between Fredersen and Rotwang for Maria and it provides the motivation for the invention of the robot. To augment the experience even further, Metropolis was accompanied by music played by the Bologna Symphony Orchestra. Audiences for this unique screening spilled into the streets beyond the Piazza, exceeding the audience numbers for Lumiere!. One of the features of Il Cinema Ritrovato is the combination of ‘live’ performance through introductions, musical soundtracks, or even narration alongside the screenings of the restored films in the Piazza Maggiore.

Whilst Lumière! and Metropolis were spectacular, some of the shorts that were screened prior to the features almost eclipsed the longer films. One of these was Il Ruscello Di Ripasottile (1941), a magical realist film shot by Roberto Rossellini and Rodolfo Lombardi. This is an eight minute experiment with the potential for cinematic illusion in documentary cinema. Rossellini creates a narrative of two conflicting threads – beginning with the story of a perch couple awaiting the imminent hatching of their eggs. A chain of talking animals is established as the fish communicate with frogs and birds in their underwater environment transmitting the good news with delight and some trepidation about the predatory trout in their vicinity. The drama escalates as the trouts overhear the conversation. Exteriors were filmed in the Ladispoli hinterland, whilst close ups of the fish were shot by creating cascading waters in the fish breeding tanks at the Ittiogenico Fish Biology Institute in Rome. Rossellini juxtaposed exterior locations with controlled interior environments and inserted the sounds and speech of animals to produce a magical realist underwater fantasy.

Il Ruscello Di Ripasottile was filmed in Italy just prior to the development of the Neorealist film movement, a time when filmic subjects usually focused on daily struggles, producing films that were sanctioned by the Fascist Regime. Whilst this short film might be interpreted as an analogy of larger power struggles, the aesthetics and lyricism distinguish this tale from the Neorealist formula. Il Ruscello Di Ripasottile was restored at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory, Cineteca Bologna from fragments of the film and documents discovered in Cinema Cilea de Palmi (Calabria). Il Ruscello Di Ripasottile was conserved without the necessity for absolute completion of form, some images (particularly towards the conclusion of the film) are rendered with black frames, something that serves to end the film in time and support the soundtrack. This film also exhibits damaged sequences in reverence to its original form and it shows a dedication and attention to detail in the restoration of the images and sounds that remain. Il Ruscello Di Ripasottile is indicative of the ideology that emphasises the primacy of the original in conservation and the desire to preserve as much of the source as possible. Linking film through the blood line, Il Ruscello Di Ripasottile  may also be seen as a precursor to Isabella Rosselini’s fabulous Green Porno project, a book and dvd set, investigating the sex life of various insect species.

Figure 3: Il Ruscello Di Ripasottile, (Roberto Rossellini, 1941)

Another inspiring and moving short film displayed in the Piazza Maggiore was Islands in the Lagoon (Isole Nella Laguna, Luciano Emmer, Enrico Gras, 1948), a poetic sequence that was described in 1948 as a chronicle of “the feelings and emotions of the islands” (Venturi, 2010 30). This black and white travelogue begins with a woman sitting on an island small enough to support herself and a goat that she has tethered to a pole. Whilst the goat chews grass, the woman is occupied by her sewing. As the camera escalates, the resulting panorama offers an indication of the mass of water surrounding this tiny landform, and the first sign of movement is noted in a small sailing ship that glides along the still waters of the lagoon, waters “without rest” according to the narrator. Water and land is linked inextricably by high contrast imagery, shots which blur the horizon line. The voice over narration mentions the “grand silence” of this landscape, one that supports ruins of a previous age. Bones and other traces of past lives remain invisible to two children who are busy pulling blackberries from canes. In a later scene, a gliding camera visits a quiet church, identifying its “abandoned saints”. The movement of the camera highlights the stillness of the church. Reflections of water produces an illusion that the Madonna’s eyes are glistening. Buildings are shot to emphasise the shimmering reflections in the water of the lagoon, adding the illusion of movement to the stillness of exteriors. The closing sequences of Islands in the Lagoon detail the work of the inhabitants of the islands. Sequences of women making lace, beading and sewing are juxtaposed with images of men blowing, spinning and cutting decorative glass for chandeliers, heated to extreme temperatures that render it soft and pliable. Focus falls on the serious faces of children concentrating hard on their crafts, an image that might imply their destinies. But Islands in the Lagoon concludes with the voice over narrator identifying the great treasure that Is hidden at the bottom of the sea, which, if we look closely, could be found one day.

Beyond the screenings at Il Cinema Ritrovato, the multi media exhibition Federico Fellini Dall’Italia Alla Luna (Federico Fellini From Italy to the Moon) offered a fascinating insight into the career, dreams and desires of one of the most important Italian auteurs. The Museum of Modern Art, Bologna (MAMbo) exhibited impressions of the life and work of Federico Fellini in public and in private moments. Visitors are greeted with large, vibrant posters advertising Fellini’s films. These include the powerful imagery of posters for Roma (1972), the cityscape with characters linked in an matrix of eyeline matches in La Dolce Vita (1960) and the collage of stars and filmmaker in the classic poster for 8 1/2 (1963). Beginning an exhibition with the public art provides a reflection on the first visual impressions of a Fellini film. This public imagery also includes newspaper articles and paparazzi snapshots designed to create scandal surrounding Fellini, his films and his stars. ‘Cinestories’, popular in illustrated magazines, provide insight into early storyboarding process in imagining films like The White Sheikh (1952). One of the moving image screens shows the mesmerising opening sequence from La Dolce Vita, featuring a helicopter trailing a statue.  A photostory of Fellini’s images of Mandrake the Magician appeared in Vogue and reimagined Marcello Mastroianni as Mandrake working in advertising in the early 1970s.

Figures 4 & 5: Posters for Federico Fellini’s films Roma and La Dolce Vita.

Federico Fellini Dall’Italia Alla Luna also reveals private images, behind the scenes photos from film productions and drawings that offer a (sometimes alarming) indication of Fellini’s thoughts. Fellini’s dreams are exposed in a reflective journal of watercolour illustrations and text. Drawings reveal his fear of being stuck in doorways, his anxieties of falling from buildings and Fellini’s nightmares about giant crocodiles. Watercolour illustrations magnify the proportion of breasts and penises in lascivious images of Fellini’s sexual fantasies. The exhibition includes Fellini’s thoughts on Roma where he writes: “Everything here belongs to the belly, everything is the belly… such a show is a feast for the eyes, but at the same time threatens all gazes: mouths, faces, outpouring bodies avidly swallowing”. Fellini  associates the procession of prostitutes in Roma  with both Fascist parades and processions of the Catholic Church, all of which he describes as ‘hypnotic representations’ of ritual. Photographs reveal the antics behind the scenes of Fellini’s film productions. This is illustrated by one particular image of a kitten placed gently on Anita Ekberg’s head during a lighter moment on the set of La Dolce Vita. These private images include satirical caricatures: photos written over with dialogue bubbles revealing the thoughts of the young filmmaker. The collection shows a collage of responses to a classified advertisement that Fellini published in an Italian newspaper announcing that he is ready to meet anyone who would like to see him. Displays include personal letters written to Fellini directly – one in orange texta, others containing snapshots of aspiring actors, some in profile, some in various states of undress. MAMbo’s exhibition Federico Fellini Dall’Italia Alla Luna is a revealing and rich collection of still and moving images, both public and private designed to follow the ‘red thread’ of Fellini’s obsessions.

Complementing the film and multi media programs the Cineteca Bologna and L’Immagine Ritrovata film restoration and conservation laboratory present the FIAF (Fédération International des Archives du Film) summer school in film restoration. The Summer School provides distance education on theory and film restoration as well as classes on the practice of restoration on site and an internship primarily for archivists and film industry workers. The DVD Awards ceremony acknowledges the best results in conservation and reproduction in the digital format from the previous year. Exhibitions of photographs, multi media and the commitment to training a new generation of film conservators is evidence of the breadth of Il Cinema Ritrovato and its interest in the future of restoration.

The crowds spilling beyond the limitations of the Piazza Maggiore, the full houses in Scala Scorsese or Lumière, the visitors to MAMBo, the interest in workshops in conservation provides measureable evidence of the breadth of Il Cinema Ritrovato. The devotion to film history and the reverence for film is expressed in the dedication of the organisation, which is mirrored in the vibrancy of the audiences in both large public spaces and in the more intimate theatres. The culture of Il Cinema Ritrovato sits resolutely against the swirling fears about the end of celluloid and the eclipse of film by digital media. But this is not a festival that exists in opposition to change, it is one that is progressively engaged with film and media histories. Peter von Bagh defines Il Cinema Ritrovato as a “web of correspondences in the finest sense of the word” (2010 9). He argues that the “program is always immeasurably more than a succession of films. Behind the scene of the program is not only the Bologna staff, but also so many individual participants, and the enormously knowledgeable audience we now have around us” (2010 9). Bazin notes that when the festival reviewer returns home,  “he feels as though he’s come back from far away, having spent a long spell in a world where order, rigour and necessity reign” with the experience an “amazing albeit hard-working retreat, with cinema as its unifying spiritual focus” (1955, 2009 19). On both sides of the screen, in its organisation and in its audiences, Il Cinema Ritrovato reaffirms the life and vibrancy of cinema of the near and distant past.

References:

André Bazin (2009, 1955) ‘The Festival Viewed As A Religious Order’, Dekalog3: On Film Festivals, Richard Porton (ed.), London: Wallflower, 13-19.

Peter von Bagh (2010) ‘Introduzione/Foreword’, Il Cinema Ritrovato, 24th Edizione, Bologna: Cineteca del Comune di Bologna, 9-12.

Paolo Cherchi Usai [et al] (2008) Film Curatorship: Archives, Museums, and the Digital Marketplace, Wien: Synema.

Guy Borlee, Roberto Chiesi [eds] (2010) Il Cinema Ritrovato, 24th Edizione, Bologna: Cineteca del Comune di Bologna.

Tom Gunning (1995) ‘An Aesthetic of Astonishment’, Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film, Linda Williams (ed.), New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 114-33.

Kent Jones (2010) ‘Mest’, in Il Cinema Ritrovato, Guy Borlee, Roberto Chiesi [eds], 24th Edizione, Bologna: Cineteca del Comune di Bologna, 47.

Mark Peranson (2009) ‘First You Get the Power, Then You Get the Money: Two Models of Film Festivals’, Dekalog3, Richard Porton (ed.) London: Wallflower Press, 23-37.

Lauro Venturi (2010, 1948) ‘Isole Nella Laguna’, in Il Cinema Ritrovato, Guy Borlee, Roberto Chiesi [eds], 24th Edizione, Bologna: Cineteca del Comune di Bologna, 29-30.

 

Bio:

Wendy Haslem is a lecturer in Screen Studies in the School of Culture of Communication at the University of Melbourne where she is also Coordinator of the Moving Image MA, which is part of the Master of Arts and Cultural Management. Wendy teaches, researches and publishes on the intersections of film history and new media.  Her research includes: Gothic film, film noir, cinema of the 1950s, Atomic culture, trauma cinema, censorship, Japanese film, Australian film culture and industry. Wendy is interested in the impact of new forms of exhibition on the archive. She is the author of ‘A Charade of Innocence and Vice’: Hollywood Gothic Films of the 1940s (2009) and she is a co-editor for the anthology Super/Heroes: From Hercules to Superman (2007). She is currently researching the evolution of the Gothic from silent cinema to new media for her book Gothic Projections: From Méliès to New Media. Email: wlhaslem@unimelb.edu.au

 

 

 

 

 

From Cult Texts to Authored Languages: Fan Discourse and the Performances of Authorship – Karolina Agata Kazimierczak

‘If the Author is Dead, Who’s Updating Her Website?’, asks provocatively a Harry Potter fan in the title of her article published in an online fanzine (Angua 2006). And in this short sentence she seems to encapsulate the whole tradition of literary criticism, from Barthes’ famous pronouncement of the death of the author (1967), Foucault’s concept of the author-function (1977) and Derrida’s notion of the absence of the subject in writing (1977), to various contemporary interpretations of authorship as collective or dispersed (Bennett 2005), debating over the problematic position of the author and the complex interplay of his/her presence/absence within a text. What she also alludes to in this catchy phrased title is the no less problematic position of the author in the sensibilities and discourse of fandom. Continue reading

The Pinball Problem – Daniel Reynolds

On January 21, 1942, pinball machines and their operation were made illegal in New York City. Raids on pinball venues—arcades, bars, and shops—commenced immediately, and thousands of the machines were seized within the following weeks. The banning of pinball in the city represented the culmination of a long and passionate effort by the city’s popular mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia. A triumphant LaGuardia had many of the confiscated machines piled up for press conferences at which he smashed their glass tops and scoreboards with a sledgehammer while being filmed and photographed by the press.

Continue reading